Kaiser Permanente union workers in Colorado prepare for strike after contract talks end

Gazette |

--More than 85,000 unionized workers for Kaiser Permanente, including 51 in Colorado Springs and 3,500 statewide, are preparing for a strike in October after contract talks with the health care giant broke down Thursday.

Contracts between Kaiser and 11 union locals in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, Oregon, Virginia, Washington and Washington, D.C., either have expired or will expire by . Negotiations on a new contract began in late April. Members of Service Employees International Union Local 105 in Denver are scheduled to meet Saturday to discuss "next steps," said David Fernandez, a union spokesman.

Kaiser, one of the largest health insurers in Colorado and nationwide, operates two medical offices in Colorado Springs and one in Pueblo that employ 150 people.

Dennis Dabney, Kaiser's senior vice president of national labor relations, said negotiations will continue. He said the talks have produced "a great deal of common ground around several major issues, including workforce planning, revitalizing employee and manager training and education, improving performance outcomes, strengthening issue resolution and problem-solving processes, eliminating workplace injuries and collaborative work to forecast the care needs of our patients."

Kaiser believes it has a "framework for resolving negotiations successfully, which will address those areas and also continue to provide market-competitive wages and benefits," Dabney said. "We look forward to reaching a fair and equitable agreement in the near future."

The unions allege Kaiser has failed to bargain in good faith and charged the health care giant with engaging in unfair labor practices, according to a news release from the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions. The group said it wants to restore a partnership between workers and management, ensure safe staffing and "compassionate" technology use, build the "workforce of the future" to combat anticipated shortages of licensed and accredited staff and protect middle-class jobs with wages and benefits "that can support families," the coalition said.

The coalition alleges Kaiser is outsourcing jobs of longtime employees to companies that pay lower wages and offer fewer benefits and that it has tried to reduce pay increases for hospital workers and cut benefits and job security. The group also is pushing for Kaiser to disclose more information on executive compensation, prices and profits generated by its hospitals and for-profit medical practices.

Emily Barrera, a medical assistant and Local 105 representative at Kaiser's Parkside medical office, said she is most worried about job security and isn't optimistic a new contract can be reached without a strike. She has been at the office two years and said layoffs this year -- two in the Springs and 200 statewide -- have raised job security concerns among Kaiser employees.

"A lot of people want to work here because Kaiser is recognized as the best (health care provider) and for job security, but everything feels like it is up in the air now and we don't feel our jobs are safe," Barrera said. "It seems like Kaiser is dragging their feet (in negotiations) and it may have to come to a strike to get a new contract. It is hard to understand because Kaiser is having a good year."

Contact Wayne Heilman: 636-0234

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