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Ten of thousands of Kaiser healthcare workers could strike over understaffing

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Autoworkers, hotel workers, Hollywood actors and writers have all gone on strike this year. Now, tens of thousands of health care workers at one of the country's biggest health care providers, Kaiser Permanente, are poised to go on strike, too. They say they are understaffed and suffering because of it. NPR's Danielle Kaye reports.

DANIELLE KAYE, BYLINE: Pamela Reid is an optometrist at Kaiser's Marlow Heights Medical Center in Maryland.

PAMELA REID: I've been working with Kaiser for 25 years.

KAYE: She says care for Kaiser's nearly 13 million patients has been deteriorating since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic because there's just not enough staff.

REID: Pre-pandemic, it was more like you can get an appointment within 5 to 10 business days. Post-pandemic, it's more like 1 to 2 months.

KAYE: Workers like Reid are getting ready to go on strike for three days next week, starting Wednesday. She hopes a strike would help bring staffing levels back up and ultimately improve care for Kaiser's patients.

REID: They are really already being affected. So our goal with the strike is to hopefully change that.

KAYE: Seventy-five thousand workers at hundreds of Kaiser hospitals, clinics and medical offices from California and Colorado to Washington, D.C., could walk off the job. It would be what their unions describe as the biggest health care strike in U.S. history. They're demanding higher pay and better benefits to help fix a severe staffing crisis. About 11% of union positions were vacant in April of this year. That's according to data obtained by the 12 unions that are in talks with Kaiser.

CAROLINE LUCAS: We went from really having a problem on the horizon to having a crisis here and now.

KAYE: Caroline Lucas is executive director of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions. She says understaffing has been a concern for years, but an exodus of health care workers during COVID coupled with the surge in demand as patients come back for routine care they delayed because of the pandemic has made the issue much more urgent. Take, for example, the mammography department in San Diego, where workers say the number of biopsies they do has skyrocketed.

LUCAS: How do you double your workload and still remain that, you know, dialed-in level of detail and attention to detail that's required for difficult medical diagnoses and testing?

KAYE: Kaiser says it's close to reaching its goal of hiring 10,000 more people to fill union positions this year, but Lucas says the organization isn't taking into account the thousands of workers who keep leaving. She says Kaiser needs to raise wages to give people a reason to stay.

LUCAS: They work 40, 50, 60 hours a week at a job that we all know as a society that we need to have filled, and they can't pay their bills at the end of the week.

KAYE: Kaiser says it offers better pay and benefits than other health care employers. They're asking employees to reject calls to walk off the job to avoid hurting patients. But workers say patient care is already suffering because of understaffed facilities, and they voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike. Many of them - lab technicians, nurses, pharmacists and others - have seen firsthand how an exodus of health care workers has exacerbated pandemic burnout.

That's what Brooke El-Amin has experienced. For 21 years, she's held lots of positions at Kaiser in the Washington, D.C. area, from technician to pharmacist.

BROOKE EL-AMIN: You know, I really moved up through the ranks, and Kaiser really grew with me for all of those years.

KAYE: Thirty-nine-year-old El-Amin says she can't imagine her life without Kaiser. But when COVID hit, the understaffing became stressful. And now, she says, it's even taken a toll on her mental health.

EL-AMIN: I don't want to strike, but I feel like Kaiser, you know, is already letting down our patients. They're already letting down the employees.

KAYE: The bargaining committees are set to meet in person tomorrow - the last set of formal talks to avoid a nationwide walkout next week.

Danielle Kaye, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "SLOW BURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Danielle Kaye
Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye worked as a business reporter at Reuters, where she covered compensation policies and union organizing at technology and retail companies. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2021 with degrees in Global Studies and French. While studying in Berkeley, Kaye reported and produced for listener-funded radio station KPFA, covering protests and housing issues in California for KPFA's morning public affairs show. She was also a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab and a news reporter and editor at the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Kaye lived with a host family in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019, which inspired her to write her senior thesis about threats to Senegal's artisanal fishing communities.