Health care union worker rally

Kaiser Permanente union health care workers and supporters rally outside the Capitol building Thursday night, protesting what they described as the company’s chronic understaffing.

The union representing Kaiser Permanente health workers in Colorado filed a federal lawsuit Thursday, alleging the organization was chronically understaffed and ignored concerns.

United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents Kaiser employees, alleges the California-based health care  consortium violated contracts requiring "sufficient staffing" to provide quality care to patients. The union is now negotiating new contract to replace an accord that expires next year, a union official said earlier this week.

"Kaiser Permanente health care workers are standing up for their patients and making sure that their very ill patients get the healthcare they pay for and need,” Nate Bernstein, the union's health care director, said in a statement Friday. “The lawsuit UFCW Local 7 has filed is intended to make sure Kaiser lives up to its commitment to the community, but also the health care workers that are so devoted and critical to our community. UFCW Local 7 health care members are making modest and common sense requests to perform their jobs safely.”

Kaiser called the suit an unfortunate "attempt to create a media event to get leverage during the ongoing bargaining process." 

"Staffing is always a key priority for us," the firm wrote. "In Colorado, we’ve filled almost 1,200 positions this year alone — the majority of those positions in care delivery roles. We also currently have nearly 400 open positions in care delivery and are working to fill them as quickly as possible."

The suit comes just days after more than 24,000 Kaiser nurses and other health care workers in Oregon and California voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike against the company, threatening to walk out over pay and working conditions. In contract negotiations there, Kaiser has pushed for a two-tiered salary system, which would pay new employees less than current ones. 

In a statement to the Associated Press earlier this week, the company wrote that it asked "our employees reject a call to walk away from the patients who need them. Our priority is to continue to provide our members with high-quality, safe care."

Bernstein told the Gazette earlier this week the current contract has a no-strike clause. But at a rally outside of the Capitol on Thursday night, union members excoriated the proposal, and local union president Kim Cordova said it would place a target on the backs of veteran, higher-paid employees.

The company told the Los Angeles Times earlier this week that wages for its union employees were 26% over market salary averages across the nation.

In the Colorado lawsuit the union calls out what it describes as chronic understaffing of a Kaiser messaging service and an infusion center. In 2019, the suit says, Kaiser launched a unified messaging center to collect and respond to communications from patients. The service is run by nurses and other health providers.

The suit alleges that the center had significant backlogs of messages, requiring staffers to work emergency shifts on weekends, and that it delayed care for patients. The suit alleges that one patient died by suicide after their spouse sent a message seeking care.

The understaffing violated the contract between Kaiser and the union, the suit alleges, which lays out a progressive process for monitoring and addressing workforce concerns. 

In its statement, the company wrote that it was "bargaining in good faith" with the union including the Colorado local that filed the lawsuit, and that Kaiser believes "disagreements are best resolved at the bargaining table, as we've done with our labor unions for decades."

Some Colorado Kaiser workers and their supporters rallied in Denver Thursday night to protest the company's staffing levels. One man held a sign declaring that workers would "strike for what is right," while another invited Kaiser executives to swap jobs with her for a month. 

Becky Sassaman, a Kaiser nurse who spoke at the rally, blasted the company's staffing and treatment of providers.

"There is a human limit to what you can do," she said. "This organization has pushed us, all of us ... and nurses and health care workers are breaking. They are breaking emotionally."

•The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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