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Health care staffing and burnout are helping drive strikes, Kaiser union leader says

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Today, more than 75,000 health care workers with Kaiser Permanente began a three-day strike.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Fair contract.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Now.

SUMMERS: Nurses, techs, pharmacists, sanitation workers and others walked off the job in California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Virginia and Washington, D.C., all in an effort to pressure their employer over staffing shortages. Union leaders say it is the largest health workers strike in U.S. history. And Kaiser is one of the biggest nonprofit health care providers in the country, serving around 13 million patients.

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Joining us now is Caroline Lucas, the executive director of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions. Caroline, welcome.

CAROLINE LUCAS: Hi. Thank you.

SUMMERS: I mean, Caroline, health care workers have been sounding the alarm over short-staffing and staffing issues for a long time now. So just tell us, how bad is it?

LUCAS: It's really bad. I don't know if the general public understands just how short-staffed and burned out the average front-line health care worker is. I know we, you know, read articles about health care workers leaving the field, but what folks aren't understanding necessarily is that that means that the people who are left behind, folks who by and large, showed up every day, day and night, throughout the pandemic to provide care, are left working double shifts. We have many members working 10, 20, 30 hours a week of overtime. And people are really, really just maxed out.

SUMMERS: I mean, Kaiser has suggested and said that it's close to reaching a goal of hiring 10,000 more people in roles by the end of this year to fill vacancies. Is that sufficient to solve the problem, or what's your response to that?

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LUCAS: You know, it's a great first step towards a potential solution. But what we are asking for is a comprehensive solution on the short-staffing crisis. What Kaiser executives haven't done is figured out the bigger picture on how to solve the short-staffing crisis.

SUMMERS: Do you have concerns about how, with more than 75,000 health care workers out on strike, it might impact patient care moving forward during this three-day strike?

LUCAS: You know, we provide 10 days' notice of intent to strike, both because it's a legal obligation for a health care workforce and also because it's an ethical obligation to ensure that Kaiser executives have the time to figure out staffing coverage. We know they bring in much more expensive outside contingency staff to help staff the facilities. And we think it's an unfortunate Band-Aid solution to this problem that could have been solved a different way, but does meet, you know, the temporary three-day time frame staffing needs.

SUMMERS: Obviously, this is one in a number of labor strikes that we have seen across industries across the country. Are you heartened by, say, the success of the writers' strike, which recently ended?

LUCAS: I am on one hand, heartened by the success of the writers' strike. And on the other hand, just saddened that our country has come to the point where so many workers have to take the ultimate action to get needs met, like wages that keep up with the cost of living, the ability to afford to live in the areas where you work. Those sorts of basic demands should not necessitate a strike to resolve. We should just be in a country that says, you know what? - health care workers are some of the most valuable jobs that there are in our country in terms of service to the broader community. We need to make sure these folks can afford to not work 10, 20, 30 hours a week of overtime and two jobs just to pay their bills.

SUMMERS: And Caroline, I do want to ask you, at this point, where are talks between workers and Kaiser Permanente? Are you all still at the bargaining table?

LUCAS: Oh, we are still here. We've been here 24 hours a day, catching naps on couches in the hotel lobby and conference rooms. We are continuing to meet. We've been grateful to have the secretary of labor, Julie Su, here for the last 24 hours or so to help try to bring the parties together. So we've been grateful to have that guidance and support. We are continuing to meet because this crisis is too important to not get right.

SUMMERS: That's Caroline Lucas, the executive director of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions. Caroline, thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you so much for your time.

SUMMERS: Kaiser hasn't commented to the press since early this morning before the strike began, when they said in part, quote, "we remain committed to reaching a new agreement that continues to provide our employees with market-leading wages, excellent benefits, generous retirement income plans and valuable professional development opportunities." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kat Lonsdorf
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, alongside Ailsa Chang, Ari Shapiro and Mary Louise Kelly. She joined All Things Considered in June 2022.