More than 3,000 Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers in Colorado have moved one step closer to a strike.
Members of Service Employees International Union Local 105 voted overwhelmingly, 99 percent, in favor of a strike authorization on Friday after two days of casting ballots in Metro Denver.
“It hurts my heart,” said Paula Coleman, a clinical laboratory assistant at Kaiser, who voted in favor of the authorization. “Everyone is understaffed, underpaid, disrespected. They feel like they’re being used. We had no choice”
The vote doesn’t mean a strike is imminent. It gives the union power to call a strike if contract negotiations over wages, benefits and hiring practices don’t produce a new agreement before the current one expires on Sept. 30.
Workers in Colorado are just a portion of some 85,000 Kaiser workers nationwide who could walk off the job later this month if a new contract isn’t reached. The California-based healthcare giant employs workers in at least 9 states, including Colorado.
Nurses and clinic staff involved in the negotiations are seeking better pay and solutions to understaffing that has plagued Kaiser since the COVID-19 pandemic, Coleman said.
“Many people are doing double the work for the same pay,” she said. “It's leading to burnout.”
Kaiser, in a statement, said it is “fully committed” to reaching an agreement with the Colorado union.
“Our priority is to reach an agreement that is mutually beneficial and ensures we can continue to offer our people market-competitive pay and outstanding benefits,” the statement said. “We are confident that we will reach an agreement that achieves that goal.”
Kaiser negotiations are frequently tense. Workers in Colorado approved a strike authorization during the last round of contract negotiations in 2021, but the union and non-profit health care provider reached a deal that narrowly avoided a strike.
Union representatives say closed-door negotiations this year have been especially difficult. Workers are pushing for faster hiring processes to fill vacancies and a 7% pay raise across the board to keep up with Colorado’s high cost of living, Coleman said.
“People aren’t able to live where they work,” she said.
Kaiser, in its statement, said it remains a leader in wages and benefits.
“We are committed to our philosophy of providing market-competitive pay and excellent benefits, and we’ve made that clear in bargaining,” the provider said.
Worker shortages have been a frequent problem at Kaiser and other healthcare providers in the state in recent years. The issue has led to tensions between employees and bosses at other hospital systems.
Kaiser workers in Colorado haven’t gone on strike in the past. SEIU says if workers across the country were to walk off the job, it would be the largest healthcare strike in U.S. history.
Now that the union has authorization, it has more power in closed-door negotiations. Those talks are set to take place in California in the coming weeks.
The soonest a strike could happen would be in late September after the union’s current contract expires.
“Nobody wants to strike,” said Coleman. “But we really need to make sure Kaiser knows we’re there every single day taking care of patients, running the lab tests, we’re running the show.”
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