HONOLULU (KHON2) — Thousands of Kaiser Permanente workers on the mainland will go on strike during the second week of November. In Hawaii, negotiations between UNITE HERE! Local 5 and Kaiser Permanente continued over the weekend; however, 1,800 Hawaii workers could be joining the mainland workers soon.

This possible strike comes at a time hospitals statewide are once again overwhelmed, not by COVID patients, but patients resuming basic care and surgeries that were put on hold during the delta surge in summer 2021.

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The Healthcare Association of Hawaii said on Friday, Nov. 5, there were roughly 2,200 patients currently in hospitals across the state, which was about the same number during the peak of the delta surge.

“Hospitals are actually very, very busy; almost as busy as they were during the peak of the pandemic,” stated Hilton Raethel, Healthcare Association of Hawaii president.

Raethel said the peak of flu season is approaching and FEMA-funded staffing ends Saturday, Nov. 13.

“We expect them to be busy for a while, but we are coping well with the demand that hospitals are dealing with right now,” Raethel added.

FEMA staff came in summer 2021 as hospital workers were overwhelmed due to staffing shortages. Healthcare workers have said they are exhausted after 20 months of COVID.

A contract between Kaiser and the union expired on Sept. 30, and UNITE HERE! Local 5 said they have been in negotiations with Kaiser for months.

“We do not want to strike. We’ve been pushing and trying so hard with Kaiser over the last, almost, eight months to secure a good contract for healthcare workers; they did not move. They did not move at all.”

Bryant de Venecia, Communications Organizer for UNITE HERE! Local 5

He said they are seeing a little bit of progress, “but still not enough for health care workers. So, if healthcare workers don’t do anything, don’t fight for our rights, it’s going to impact all our patients, all of the health care workers here in Hawaii; all of our community, we’re fighting for everyone here. So, that’s our position. They’re not respecting workers right now, after almost 20 months of sacrifices and hard work.”

UNITE HERE! Local 5 said Kaiser Permanente offered a 1% pay raise and a two-tier wage system that would cut wages for future hires by one-third, and negotiations have moved up to 2% with the two-tier wage system. On Monday, November 8, Kaiser said On November 2, Kaiser Permanente offered Alliance leaders an updated economic proposal that provides Alliance-represented employees as much as 4% a year in pay increases, with no takeaways to the market-leading benefits and retirement programs.

“[Two-tier wages], we want equality for all of the employees that work with us coming on board,” said Lori Pua, Licensed Practical Nurse at Kaiser Permanente Hilo Clinic. “And it’ll affect future employees coming on board.”

At the end of October, UNITE HERE! Local 5 said 93% of Kaiser healthcare workers who voted, authorized a strike. The union represents medical assistants, licensed practical nurses, lab assistants, hospital aids, housekeepers and others.

“Equal job, equal pay rate, you know, we deserve that — everybody does — and that’s not just Kaiser alone; it’s just all workers, all Hawaii jobs, you know, we all deserve that chance,” said Leia Rabe, who is a healthcare worker.

To help with the state’s overall staffing shortage moving forward, Raethel said some hospitals are trying to have some of the FEMA-funded staff stick around.

“Right now we have well over 200 of these FEMA-funded staff who have transitioned from the FEMA contract to a hospital-based contract,” Raethel said. “Whether it’s a strike or whether it’s COVID, whether we’re going to get a bump potentially from either Thanksgiving or Christmas, New Year’s, that we have the capacity to take care of all the patients who need care across the state.”

After UNITE HERE! Local 5 workers authorized a strike, Kaiser Permanente sent out the following statement:

At Kaiser Permanente, we are proud of our history of having a highly unionized workforce. Our history and our future are deeply connected to organized labor, and labor unions have always played an important role in our efforts to give more people access to high-quality care and make care more affordable. We remain committed to working together with labor for our workforce, our members, and the communities that rely on us.

Kaiser Permanente and the Alliance of Health Care Unions began national bargaining in April 2021. We worked late into the evening on September 30, 2021, before the contract expired, but we were not able to reach an agreement or agree on terms for a contract extension. It is not uncommon to continue negotiating without a contract in place, and we are committed to resolving this quickly. We have made progress in many important areas, have extended an initial economic offer, and will continue to work collaboratively with the Alliance to reach an agreement that meets the interests of both parties.

We strongly believe that differences in bargaining are best worked out at the bargaining table, and we have a 24-year history of partnership with the unions in the Alliance that proves it. We understand that some union leaders are now calling for a strike authorization vote, even though our members and communities are continuing to face the challenges of the ongoing pandemic. A strike authorization does not automatically trigger a strike. Unions still would be required to provide us with a 10-day notification before any work stoppage could commence.

We ask that our employees reject a call to walk away from the patients who need them. Our priority is to continue to provide our members with high-quality, safe care. In the event of any kind of work stoppage, our facilities will be staffed by our physicians along with trained and experienced managers and contingency staff.

We are extremely grateful for our front-line health care employees, whose commitment to providing care and service throughout the pandemic has been nothing short of inspiring.

KAISER PERMANENTE STATEMENT

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By law, a union must give a 10-day notice of a strike to a healthcare employer.