On Labor Day, more than a thousand people gathered in Oakland’s Mosswood Park to march for higher wages and staffing increases for California healthcare workers who say not enough is being done to remedy the ongoing turmoil and stressful working conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the crowd were Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis and the mayors of Oakland, Berkeley and other Bay Area cities. The rally was staged by SEIU United Healthcare Workers West, and two sister rallies occurred simultaneously in Los Angeles and San Diego.
Dave Regan, SEIU UHW president, specifically called out healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente, saying it has until Sept. 30, when the union contract expires, to meet the workers’ demands, or face a possible strike.
Elena Perez, a union representative, confirmed that the current contract ends on Sept. 30, and said “members of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions are taking strike authorization votes now, nationwide.”
In a written statement, Kaiser pointed to its long labor partnership and defended its record of supporting employees and patients. The HMO highlighted funding it provided during the pandemic to help workers, including $800 million for housing front-line workers, child care grants and additional paid leave for employees who contracted the virus or were exposed. The statement said that because of those efforts, Kaiser was able to retain workers during the pandemic.
“While most health care organizations are experiencing an employee turnover rate of 21.4%, Kaiser Permanente’s average employee turnover rate is only 8.5%,” the statement said.
But Sonya Smith, a Kaiser radiologic technologist from Oakland, said current staffing is so bad it’s forcing patients away.
Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis addresses healthcare workers and their families during a Labor Day march and rally organized by Service Employees International Union and United Healthcare Workers West at Mosswood Park in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 4, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
“Some of our vulnerable patients – the critically ill, senior citizens and pediatric patients – can’t get the X-rays they need in a timely manner,” Smith says. “To me that’s disheartening, when you see senior citizens waiting two to three hours to get a chest X-ray. Sometimes they don’t want to stay that long and they leave, and I hate to see something go undiagnosed like pneumonia because they don’t want to wait.”
“We’ve had a drastic drop in staffing, and even though our employer tried to say it’s because of COVID, we were short-staffed before COVID,” said Georgette Bradford, a Kaiser ultrasound technologist in Sacramento. “Now Kaiser is dragging its feet on real solutions to bring us to better staffing, which includes things that will help us recruit and retain like higher wages, safety measures and training.”
The Kaiser statement said that the organization hired more than 29,000 employees last year and expects to hire more than that this year. The statement also indicated that Kaiser would continue to bargain in good faith in an effort to reach an agreement before the national contract expires Sept. 30.
Some healthcare workers said they’re still dealing with the trauma of working during the pandemic.
“I was the first one in my department to get COVID-19,” said Erica Chinchilla, a respiratory therapist at Kaiser Antioch. “I was working in the emergency room and it was scary times. And where was leadership? Not there. It was very scary. I felt abandoned by Kaiser.”
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, fourth from left, Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, second form right, along with other elected officials, healthcare workers and their families take part in a Labor Day march and rally organized by Service Employees International Union and United Healthcare Workers West at Mosswood Park in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 4, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
SEIU UHW represents more than 100,000 healthcare workers across the state, many of whom are feeling burnt out, said union spokesperson Renée Saldaña. At the same time they’re having to deal with patients who put off preventative care during COVID, and are now swarming into hospitals and clinics.
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“Because there’s such an influx of patients with not enough caregivers, we’re seeing things like people can’t get appointments – people aren’t able to get mammogram appointments for 8 or 9 months – or long waits of 6 to 8 hours for emergency rooms, and patients being neglected because there just aren’t enough caregivers to attend to them,” said Saldaña.
The near future could be grimmer still, with a rise in new COVID variants, said Saldaña. Hospital admissions are already on the rise, and the latest forecast from the CDC predicts that by late September, daily COVID-19 hospital admissions could increase by as many as 9,700 patients across the nation.
“People say, ‘We’re through with COVID,’” said Saldaña. “But COVID isn’t done with us, and it certainly isn’t done in our healthcare systems.”
Healthcare workers and their families march in front of Kaiser Permanente during a Labor Day march and rally organized by Service Employees International Union and United Healthcare Workers West in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 4, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)