Savonda Blaylock, a pharmacy technician in Northern California, has worked for healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente for 22 years and has never participated in a strike. That could change Wednesday if she becomes one of 75,000 workers taking part in the largest health strike in the country’s history.
Blaylock said that even if the strike continues, it will be difficult for her to quit her job and be away from her regular patients. Only 3 days. But Blaylock said: She feels she has no choice as the hospital is currently experiencing staffing issues both as an employee and as a patient.
“When I try to make plans, (In my mother’s case) they say they don’t have the staff to accommodate her,” Blaylock said. “When I came to Kaiser, this was a great place to work. This was where I wanted to retire. I’m thinking about leaving now, but I don’t want to. There’s probably about 12 people on my shift. Before COVID-19, we had 18 companies. We’ve lost so many employees over the last three years.”
A union strike would affect dozens of facilities in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Members of the union federation, which includes nurses, therapists, technicians, food services, maintenance and administrative staff, are scheduled to participate in a three-day strike starting Wednesday. Kaiser said they have contingency plans in place to continue providing care to patients during the strike.
“While we regret the planned strike, we remain committed to reaching an agreement that is good for our employees, members, and organization, and we will continue to negotiate in good faith,” Kaiser said in a statement.
Ms. Blaylock, who is part of the union’s bargaining team, said Mr. Kaiser has ignored demands to resolve the staffing crisis. Management denies that, but admits it is facing staffing issues.
“Every health care provider in the country is facing staffing shortages and burnout. More than 5 million people across the United States have left their health care workforce during the 2021-2022 “Great Retirement” period. “Up to two-thirds of healthcare workers are experiencing burnout, and more than one in five have quit their jobs,” the company said in a statement. “Kaiser Permanente is not immune to these challenges.”
Kaiser acknowledges that filling healthcare jobs is a difficult challenge, but the stress on the current workforce is contributing to increased labor tensions in the healthcare industry.
Kaiser said the company hired 29,000 staff in 2022 alone, and by year-end had 224,000 non-physician staff. The company has hired 22,000 people so far this year, about 10,000 of whom are union representatives.. Kaiser said the company already pays 20% more than competing health systems.
The company is “confident in reaching an agreement that strengthens our position as a great place to work while maintaining affordable and easy access to quality care.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracked 42 work stoppages involving more than 1,000 strikers from the beginning of 2022 through August of this year. According to that tally, one-third of his strikes occurred in the medical industry. This is up from 24% of mass strikes in 2019, the year before the pandemic. The number of medical strikes is increasing, even though medical workers make up only about 9% of private sector union members nationwide.
But experts say convincing workers in the health care industry to go on strike may be more difficult than in many other industries.
“Strikes are always emotional, regardless of the profession. I don’t think many people want to go on strike,” said John August, director of health labor relations research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “But for health care workers, it’s different. You’re leaving behind babies, the elderly, the sick. There’s no doubt that the emotional toll is even greater.”
And while many of the people who might go on strike at Kaiser Hospital are not nurses, August said that doesn’t mean they aren’t important to patient care.
“If you’re working in the kitchen or delivering meals to your room, that’s part of the healing process,” he says. “Patients have special dietary needs. Housekeeping staff protects every room from infection. They are often people invisible to the public. Just because they aren’t doesn’t mean they aren’t important.”
Large-scale medical strikes so far this year include a January strike by 7,000 nurses in New York City. For nurses like Nanyaka Kamara, who works at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, the strike can be personal. Now that she’s grown up, she still lives in the area, and she goes to the hospital for her own treatment. Kamala often recognizes or knows patients in the hospital.
During the strike, she told CNN that she loved her job and was going on strike out of frustration at not being able to provide patients with the care they deserve.
“Sometimes I feel like what I did was pointless. I’m sorry because it had nothing to do with me,” Camara said from a picket line in front of a nearby hospital. She said staffing shortages often delay the delivery of medicines and other services patients need, and her shifts can extend to 12 to 14 hours. Kamala said she would go to bed as soon as she got home.
“I don’t like thinking about the previous shift because I don’t want to go into the next shift,” she said.
“The number of[registered nurses]on strike is extraordinary,” former union organizer Bob Muehlenkamp told CNN during the New York nurses strike.
Muehlenkamp spent much of her career organizing and negotiating on behalf of nurses. He said wage increases were not the biggest hurdle for nurses and health workers, but rather they were concerned about how their jobs were done.
“There is a trauma that every RN goes through when making the decision to leave a patient,” Muehlenkamp says. “It goes against every instinct they have.”
Sal Roselli, president of the National Union of Health Care Workers, said a shortage of nurses and harsh working conditions have led to a surge in strikes and union organizing activity., He told CNN in January. Although staffing shortages began before 2020, the pandemic marked a turning point for many nurses.
“They learned during the pandemic that their employers were not concerned about their safety or the safety of their patients,” Roselli said.
ECRI, an independent healthcare research firm, ranks industry shortages as the biggest risk to U.S. patients. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
“Unfortunately, there are no short-term solutions to this problem,” ECRI CEO Dr. Marcus Schabacker said during the New York nurses strike in January.
In addition to the aging of the U.S. population, some of the surge in hospitalizations is due to “pent-up demand during the pandemic, including patients returning to hospitals for elective procedures.”
Schabacker also noted that there is an “increasing need to treat patients with post-COVID-19 complications.” All of this is putting added pressure on a system that has long been understaffed. ”
The nursing shortage will get worse, he says. “A few years ago, we estimated that there would be a shortage of 1 million nurses nationwide by 2025,” Schabacker said. Although that may be an underestimate given the number of people who have been away from the field during the pandemic. He said.
According to ECRI data, the median age of certified nurses is 52 years, and 20% of them are 65 years or older. Due to the shortage of nurses, there is also a shortage of nursing instructors. In 2019, ECRI estimated that more than 80,000 qualified applicants were denied admission to nursing schools due to teacher shortages.
“Many nurses participate because they want to help patients,” Schabacker said. “If there’s a shortage, they tend to put in extra shifts or come on weekends instead. If someone is tired, overworked, and sleep deprived, they’re going to make more mistakes. ”
Nurse strikes don’t help patients In the short term, he said. “That’s an understandable expression of real desperation.”