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Kaiser Strike Still On for Thousands Left Out of ’Landmark Agreement”

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Two days ahead of a massive planned walkout, Kaiser Permanente averted immediate crisis with a tentative deal that addresses some demands among a portion of its workers. But contrary to much of Saturday’s reporting, some workers are still planning to hit the picket lines Monday.

It was announced Saturday morning that the Oakland-based healthcare giant reached what they call a “landmark agreement,” which would cover about 50,000 employees across 22 unions. What most headlines don’t mention is that the engineers, who have now been on strike for 57 days, are not part of that deal. 

In fact, several other unions are still struggling to bring Kaiser to the table to address a whole host of demands, including some that have nothing to do with wages. 

For Jessica Dominguez, head clinician and founder of Kaiser’s La Clinica program in Richmond, the commitment to striking Monday is based in both her solidarity with engineers and as a call for resources needed in her own department. This will be her third strike in seven years she’s worked with the company.

As is the case with the engineers’ union — IUOE Stationary Engineer Local 39 — Dominguez’s union is relatively small. Without the bargaining power of a large union like the SEIU — and U.S. senators — behind them, smaller groups find that banding together gives them the strength in numbers. “The engineers have always had our back,” Dominguez said, adding that she intends to return the favor. 

Her union has authorized a one-day solidarity strike, but she plans to hold out through the week. Given that most of her time on the picket line will be unpaid, Dominguez is quite literally putting her money where her mouth is, which is a big deal for a single-income household in the Bay Area. But her battle is about more than a paycheck — for her, this is equally about the patients.

Negotiations between Kaiser and the National Union of Healthcare Workers chapter that represents Dominguez and her colleagues officially broke down in the last week of October. However, it could be said the process never really started.

She said:

“When you don’t accept…proposal after proposal and then you come back with nothing, you definitely lead us into a place where we have no other option other than to withhold our labor and strike.”

Understaffing and unacceptable patient backlogs predate the pandemic, but Dominguez stresses that COVID-19 exacerbated those deficiencies, especially among the BIPOC staff. As a bilingual clinician, Dominguez speaks to the exhaustion in trying to keep pace with an unprecedented mental health crisis in the Latino community. 

Exasperated, Domiguez said:

“Our BIPOC providers are getting burnt out at an astronomical level, especially because our community has been the hardest hit by COVID. We’re seeing rates of traumatic grief, suicide, depression and substance abuse amongst our children, adolescents and adults in ways that we’ve never seen before.”

She stressed that providing quality mental health care requires more than just hiring more people who will soon end up with equally heavy caseloads, adding that the system needs reforming with a focus on equity. In her view, Kaiser is just not listening. 

She has to face patients who wait two months between appointments they desperately need, yet she sees Kaiser spare little expense to advertise the care she and her team have no way of providing. Dominguez said appointments are currently booked further out than Kaiser’s scheduling system can track — they have resorted to using pen and paper for manual booking.    

According to Dominguez, Kaiser’s polished and star studded marketing is a classic “bait-and-switch.” She said:

“They’re really good at selling their product. You know, a service that doesn’t exist. … They ramp up all those advertisers around open enrollment time and get a huge bump in membership, but there’s no investment in the infrastructure to actually support the members that they’re selling to. Meanwhile, the premiums go up and people are like, ‘I’m paying for this.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, you are. And you’re not getting what you paid for.’”

She added: 

“They just keep bringing in new members and (Kaiser) keeps advertising their mental health. And we’re just like, ‘What are we supposed to do with all these people?’”

As of Saturday evening, the strike is still on for engineers, pharmacists, mental health clinicians and others not covered by the “landmark agreement” yet to be ratified. Dominguez will be among them, fighting for both her colleagues and for the care her patients deserve.

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.