More than 1,800 employees of Kaiser Permanente planned to go on strike Nov. 22 in Hawaii after contract negotiations stalled between the health care company and workers represented by Unite Here Local 5, which is part of the Alliance of Health Care Unions.

Kaiser Permanente alerted Hawaii Kaiser members Thursday that the strike would begin at 5:30 a.m. Nov. 22.

“We’re very disappointed in the union’s action,” the company wrote in an email, adding that patients should keep their appointments and the company is bringing in contingency staff to help with gaps in staffing.

Bryant de Venecia, spokesman for Unite Here Local 5, said the company and the union have been in negotiations since April, but the talks have stalled.

“We don’t want to strike,” he said. “This is just the last resort.” 

The strike comes as Hawaii hospitals continue to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Fifty-nine people were hospitalized for Covid on Thursday, far less than the daily peaks of more than 470 people in September. But Hawaii hospitals continue to be full with patients seeking care for other illnesses that they had delayed because of coronavirus fears.

Kaiser workers rally along King Street fronting Kaiser Permanente Honolulu Office. 3 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
It’s not the first time Kaiser employees have gone on strike. They also rallied along King Street in front of the Kaiser Permanente office in Honolulu in 2015. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

The Alliance of Health Care Unions represents more than 50,000 workers nationally. Kaiser employees in Southern California, Washington and Oregon also plan to go on strike next week.

In Hawaii, the main disagreements during collective bargaining revolved around pay and staffing, de Venecia said.

He said that Kaiser wants the union to agree to allow future employees to be hired at lower salaries, which would create a two-tiered pay scale among union members.

We cannot accept that at all,” he said. “It’s selling out the future workers.” 

Kaiser employees also asked for 4% raises each year for three years, whereas the company offered 2% annual raises plus 2% annual bonuses.

De Venecia said getting larger raises, not bonuses, is important to keep up with inflation. Consumer prices were up 6.22% in October compared with the previous year, the highest inflation rate since 1990.

A third point of contention involved staffing. De Venecia said health care providers who have been overworked during the pandemic want the company to create a plan to expand hiring.

Workers are overworked, they’re burnt out, some of them have worked for 10 days straight,” he said.

Kaiser spokeswoman Laura Lott said the company wouldn’t make anyone available for interviews while bargaining is ongoing. Instead, she shared a statement from Arlene Peasnall, senior vice president of human resources.

The company said it had analyzed its pay scale and found that its Hawaii workers are paid 19% above market rate.

“Our proposal simply aims to slow the significant over-market growth in compensation while continuing to reward our employees and fulfill our commitment to our members and patients to provide high-quality affordable health care,” Peasnall said in a statement.

Kaiser emphasized it is not cutting benefits for employees.

The union disagreed with the wage analysis that Kaiser conducted, and de Venecia said the multibillion-dollar company can afford the wage increases.

He said Hawaii residents can expect to see picket lines at facilities across multiple islands including Oahu, Maui and Hawaii island.

The Kaiser employees due to strike have a range of jobs, including but not limited to licensed practical nurses, nurse aids, lab technicians, emergency room technicians, housekeepers and maintenance staff.

Hawaii union members don’t include staffers in the mental health, physical therapy and pharmacy departments, de Venecia said.

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