Kaiser Permanente engineer strike approaching 50 days

As their dispute with management approaches the 50-day mark, stationery and biomedical engineers for Kaiser Permanente continue to strike and picket 24 hours and seven days a week to spread awareness of their working conditions.

Outside the Kaiser Medical Center in Vallejo on Serrano Drive on Friday, drivers honked their horns in support of workers. The striking engineers — more than 750 from 24 hospitals — are seeking prevailing wages for the work they do in the Bay Area.

“This is unprecedented. We’re essential workers risking our lives on-site — just like the doctors and nurses,” Kaiser Chief Engineer Mike VanMaren said. “Up until the morning of Sept. 17, we negotiated for a new labor contract. The next morning we began the strike. We love our staff and the patience they have for us. We are all bout Kaiser’s mission statement, but this is something we need to do.”

A stationary engineer who’s been with the company for 22 years and wished to remain anonymous said the community support has been helpful.

“It’s been great and very appreciated,” the engineer said. “We’re getting a lot of community support and a lot of support from the local staff,” the engineer said. “When they are going into work or leaving they wish us well and say they can’t wait to have us back and that they are sorry we have to be out here. But we need a competitive wage with the other Bay Area Hospitals. I can’t say how much we are demanding, but where some places are pennies behind the normal rate we are dollars below the rate.”

Engineer Frank Traylor said most of his work is done behind the scenes helping patients find their way back. He said he needs to strike but misses taking care of the patients and getting them back on their feet.

“It’s very satisfying helping someone and that goes for all of us,” Traylor said. “All of us want to do the best we can do in helping others.”

VanMaren said he “misses the camaraderie and the part of the service where we get to help care for others and save lives.”

“In all of this I really feel bad for the patients who have to deal with all of this,” VanMaren said. “Their service is being affected, and that’s a shame.

On Monday Kaiser released a statement: “Kaiser has been and continues to bargain in good faith with Local 39, the union which represents several hundred operating engineers in Northern California. (Kaiser) hopes to reach agreement with Local 39 as soon as possible and look forward to welcoming our engineers back to work.

“The engineers represented by Local 39 are among the highest paid in their profession in the country, earning total compensation (wages, benefits, and retirement) of more than $180,000 a year. The retirement benefit alone is by far the most generous of any employee union group at Kaiser Permanente. We are offering a reasonable wage increase, and no takeaways, but the union is demanding more.”

Clinicians in Northern California approved strike authorization after the HMO rejected proposals to address staffing shortages and dangerously long waits for mental health care

On Thursday, Kaiser Permanente psychologists, therapists and social workers in Northern California voted to authorize a strike in response to the HMO’s rejection of its proposals to improve access to mental health care. The clinicians have not submitted a formal strike notice to Kaiser, and no strike date has been set as contract talks continue this week.

They will likely join the engineers as well as the Alliance of Health Care Unions, which has recently announced that 36,000 members, primarily in Southern California, have authorized a strike against Kaiser.

“We’ve been at the forefront in exposing Kaiser’s greed in underfunding mental health care and forcing patients to wait months between therapy appointments,” said Mickey Fitzpatrick, a Kaiser psychologist in a news release. “Now, we have the opportunity to stand together with other unions and show that Kaiser’s greed is harming patients across California.”

Kaiser mental health clinicians have been without a contract since Oct. 1. In negotiations, Kaiser has rejected union proposals to increase staffing, recruit more bilingual and minority therapists and ease unsustainable caseloads that are causing increased turnover at Kaiser clinics.

Kaiser is refusing to consider any proposals pertaining to staffing even though it will need to hire many more clinicians to comply with SB 221, a new law spearheaded by Kaiser clinicians that requires health insurers to provide follow-up mental health therapy appointments within 10 business days unless the clinician determines that a longer wait would not be detrimental. Currently, many Kaiser patients are being forced to wait two months between therapy appointments.

In separate negotiations with clinicians in Southern California, Kaiser, which has reported a $13.8 billion profit over the last two years, made a two-tier wage proposal that would cut wages by approximately 25 percent for clinicians hired after 2022. The proposal would also pay newly hired workers significantly less if they work in the Inland Empire or Kern County, even though those regions have relatively fewer mental health clinicians.

“Kaiser’s proposal in Southern California is a red flag that it has no intention of fixing its broken mental health care system or complying with state mental health access laws,” said Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers. “For Kaiser to propose massive pay cuts for future mental health clinicians at a time when patients are waiting months to see their therapist is a slap in the face to everyone who believes in parity for mental health care.”

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