The Potential Strike By Kaiser Workers Illustrates A Much Larger Problem in Today’s Workforce

This week, multiple sources reported that The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions is preparing to vote on a strike authorization. The coalition represents nearly 85,000 healthcare workers in Kaiser Permanente facilities across the country, one of the largest organized groups in the industry.

The coalition exclaims that it is fighting for better working conditions, staffing ratios, and more equitable pay, among other things. It explains in an open letter: “After three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, there simply aren’t enough healthcare workers to safely and properly care for patients. Even before the pandemic, we faced a healthcare worker shortage; now, it is becoming a full-blown crisis that threatens all aspects of patient care. Many of our co-workers have left and more are considering leaving as we continue to endure the emotional toll of the pandemic and a sense that our safety is not protected at work. At the same time, after everything we’ve been through, and as inflation squeezes our families, it is demoralizing to see retail, hospitality, and other sectors raising pay rates much faster than what we’re seeing in our hospitals and facilities.”

Indeed, the healthcare workforce has changed significantly over the last decade, and the Covid-19 pandemic was an especially tumultuous force on the industry. Staffing shortages have become incredibly prevalent, especially as increased burn out, decreasing wages and shifting tides in worker sentiment has transformed the workforce. Late last year, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the current Surgeon General of the United States, penned an article in the New England Journal of Medicine titled: Confronting Health Worker Burnout and Well-Being. In the article, Dr. Murthy explains that “More than half of health workers report symptoms of burnout, and many are contending with insomnia, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other mental health challenges.

The American Medical Association independently discussed a study which surveyed nearly 43,000+ people; the results indicated that “Half of all respondents met the criteria for burnout, with 47.3% of physicians reporting that they felt burned out. More than one-quarter of all respondents also expressed an intent to leave their jobs, with 24.3% of physicians said they planned to quit in the next two years.”

But this sentiment is not specific to the healthcare industry. Prevailing research has repeatedly indicated that burnout continues to be on the rise across nearly all industries, noting that multiple sectors are facing a similar situation to healthcare. Workers are hard to find and even harder to retain, especially given rising wage requirements in the landscape of rapidly escalating costs of living. Furthermore, workers report a general sense of dissatisfaction, meaning that wages and working conditions are often relied upon to compensate or make up for the lack of job satisfaction— a challenging feat even in the best of economic climates.

Organizational psychologists and experts discuss this as a larger commentary on the state of the work economy and current corporate culture, which many believe are the cause of rising burn out. In fact, some states are apparently considering legislation to try and implement a 4-day work week for corporations in an attempt to quell some of the larger systemic problems in work culture and increase retention of good workers.

For healthcare, a 4-day workweek just isn’t possible, given that it is a 24/7/365 need. However, there are still other ways working conditions can be improved, such as better nurse to patient staffing ratios, better hours and improved access to resources.

The Kaiser organization has released its own statement: “Kaiser Permanente is fully committed to reaching an agreement with the unions affiliated with the Coalition just as we have done in every national bargaining since 1999. 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… We, like all health care organizations, have experienced staffing challenges driven by the pandemic and its lasting effects. For health care systems, this has been made worse by the backlog in care and the increase in needs and acuity we’re seeing across the country.”

The organizations are in continued discussions to reach an agreement and both seem to be committed to finding a productive path forward. However, if an amicable solution is not agreed upon soon, a potential strike would affect millions of patient lives.

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