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After historic strike, Kaiser Permanente workers win 21% raise over 4 years

Striking Kaiser Permanente workers on the picket line in front of a hospital in Vallejo, Calif., on Oct. 6. A deal to avert another strike came together Friday.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Striking Kaiser Permanente workers on the picket line in front of a hospital in Vallejo, Calif., on Oct. 6. A deal to avert another strike came together Friday.

Updated October 14, 2023 at 2:11 PM ET

Kaiser Permanente and a coalition of unions reached a tentative deal Friday morning, ending the largest healthcare labor dispute in U.S. history.

The new contract aims to address staffing shortages with raises that will amount to 21% in wage increases over the next four years, to help retain current workers.

The deal comes after tens of thousands of nurses, ER technicians, and pharmacists participated in a three-day strike Oct. 4-6.

Striking workers argued an under-staffing crisis was hurting patients.

Both sides credited the involvement of actingU.S. Labor Secretary Julie Su, who was there in person when the final version was hammered out at 3 A.M. in San Francisco.

"This agreement demonstrates what is possible when workers have a voice and a seat at the table," Su said during a press conference Friday.

"Collective bargaining works. It may not always look pretty. But unions have, throughout our nation's history, built the middle class."

Steve Shields, the lead for labor relations at Kaiser, said the negotiations were long, but all parties now feel like they have come to a solid agreement.

"It was a bumpy ride," he said. "We are committed to the mission and committed to caring for people in our communities. It is a challenging environment in the U.S. in general for healthcare. We don't have enough healthcare workers."

Kaiser employees who participated in the strike will vote to ratify the new contract starting Oct. 18.

"This deal is life-changing for frontline health care workers like me, and life-saving for our patients," said Yvonne Esquivel, a pediatric medical assistant at Kaiser Permanente in Gilroy, Calif.

"Thousands of Kaiser health care workers fought hard for this new agreement, and now we will finally have the resources we need to do the job we love, and keep our patients safe," Esquivel said.

The new contract establishes a minimum wage health care workers at Kaiser Permanente, which is both an insurer and a system of hospitals and clinics. In California, that minimum wage will be $25 per hour, and $23 per hour for workers in other states.

The health care giant has workers and facilities in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Maryland and Washington D.C., among other states.

The contract covers represents big wins for the coalition of unions representing 85,000 Kaiser Permanente staff. Other details of the agreement include new restrictions on hiring subcontractors and using outside firms for temporary staffing.

The deal also requires Kaiser to invest in job training programs, and use referral bonuses, mass job fairs and other workforce development efforts to ensure an adequate supply of new employees for the future.

Kaiser says it will also work to fill some of its vacant positions, one of the main components of the coalition's demands. Currently, 11% of positions are unfilled.

"A key provision was something we referred to as an accelerated hiring process, said Dave Regan, the president of SEIU United Healthcare Workers. " We're removing all barriers to being able to get people into positions and into patient facing roles to provide care."

Kaiser will focus on hard-to-fill positions first.

"We think we have the ability to create 25,000 new health care workers over the next four years," Regan said. "We can't do that unless we rebuild the partnership."

If an agreement hadn't been reached, the union was threatening to hold another three-day strike in November.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 14, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of SEIU United Healthcare Workers President Dave Regan as Reagan.
Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.
Scott Maucione