Nearly 18,000 health care workers at Kaiser Permanente vote to authorize strike, rejecting pay cuts for new hires

Health care workers at a candlelight vigil.
Registered nurses and health care professionals attend a candlelight vigil at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Panorama City, California on April 28, 2021. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Image
  • Kaiser Permanente is one of the nation’s largest health care providers.
  • The nonprofit company generated $US2.2 ($AU3) billion in earnings in 2020.
  • It has proposed a 1% raise for nurses in contract negotiations. The union is seeking 4%.

Members of a union representing around 24,000 health care professionals at Kaiser Permanente have voted to authorize a strike in a dispute over wages, with the company seeking to cut costs by reducing pay for new hires.

The vote does not mean the employees will ultimately strike, but it does up the ante in negotiations that are continuing this week.

According to United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, 96% of those who took part in the online vote elected to approve a strike.

The union is part of a broader Alliance of Health Care Unions that represents more than 50,000 Kaiser Permanente employees. With the workers’ current contract having expired as of September 30, other member unions are holding their own strike-authorization votes in the coming days.

At issue is the company’s offer of an annual raise of 1% for current employees, plus an additional 1% annual bonus for the next three years. Accounting for inflation, that could be considered an offer of stagnant wages – or a pay cut. As of August 2021, the price of consumer goods had risen 5.3% from the year before. The Federal Reserve typically aims for a 2% rate of inflation.

Kaiser Permanente is also proposing that new hires be paid using a different – and lower – pay scale than existing workers, a “two-tier” system that critics say would give the company a financial incentive to push out older employees.

In negotiations, unions are pushing for an across-the-board pay increase of 4% per year, as well as retaining employees’ eligibility for a 1% contribution to their retirement savings, which the company has proposed eliminating for new hires.

A spokesperson for Kaiser Permanente did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On its website, however, the company states that its union employees’ wages “are on average 26% over market in nearly all markets.” One of its objectives in negotiations, it says, “is to help bend the curve on wage growth,” saying it must find a way to cut costs in order to remain competitive. New hires, from 2023 on, would receive pay “more aligned with each market.”

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