By HUGH STEPHENSON
More than 64,000 Kaiser Permanente workers authorized a strike for Sept. 30 if their demands for more staffing and increased compensation are not met. Even as strikes by workers in other sectors become more common (auto industry, teachers, and the service field), a strike by Kaiser Permanente employees will be historic and could fundamentally change how health care as practiced in the United States. Such a strike will be the largest in the history of U.S. health care with up to 85,000 workers going out.
What led 98% of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West workers and workers in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, D.C., and Maryland to vote yes on strike authorization? Long before the COVID pandemic exploded on the scene, health-care workers were under attack by hospital executives. To increase profits, the health-care “assembly line” was sped up. Doctors are forced to see more patients with fewer support staff. The COVID crises exacerbated an already dire situation. In many areas, employee compensation was slashed, while politicians and hospital bosses called staff “heroes” for putting their own lives at risk to care for those with COVID. In Virginia, during the height of the pandemic, Sentara Health (a hospital and clinic conglomerate) slashed compensation of nurses and doctors by as much as one third.
As a result, the health-care industry has seen a flood of workers leave, unable to put up with workplace stress. Burnout has become so high that the United States Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued an advisory on May 23, 2022, addressing the crisis. Dr. Murthy shares that “8 of 10 health workers have experienced workplace violence, 76% of health workers reported exhaustion and burnout, and 66% of nurses have considered resigning.”
And what is the risk to patient health resulting from staff shortages? Abundant studies show the ratio of caregivers to patients impacts patient outcome: the lower number of health-care workers, the poorer patient outcomes.
In the study “The effect of nurse staffing on patient-safety outcomes: A cross-sectional survey,” it was found: “The nurse-to-patient ratio and rate of nurses with work experience ≤5 years predicted fall rates, and rate of hospital-acquired pressure ulcers was positively correlated to the level of nurse staffing (low nurse-to-patient ratio and high bed-to-nurse number).”
Another essay, “Nurse staffing, nursing assistants and hospital mortality: retrospective longitudinal cohort study,” claims: “Lower RN staffing and higher levels of admissions per RN are associated with increased risk of death during an admission to hospital. These findings highlight the possible consequences of reduced nurse staffing and do not give support to policies that encourage the use of nursing assistants to compensate for shortages of RNs.”
Dave Regan, president of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, claims that Kaiser has failed to adequately address a staffing crisis that has led to dangerous wait times for patients. SEIU Local 49 President Meg Niemi said that their union’s 4000 represented health-care workers “have joined our colleagues in overwhelmingly voting to authorize a strike because if Kaiser executives are going to continue to violate the law and put patient safety on the line, we must act.”
Hospital workers give their all to help us get well and stay healthy. They do this while the capitalist class tries to exploit their labor by undercutting pay and staffing. Should Kaiser Permanente fail to meet the union’s demands, working people everywhere must join in the fight and support hospital staff by helping on the picket line or contributing to strike funds.
Photo: Kaiser Permanente workers rally in East Hollywood, Calif., on Sept. 4. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)