Unions announced a tentative deal with the hospital on Friday. File photo by Julianna Morano/Fresnoland
Hundreds of healthcare workers joined the picket line in front of the Kaiser Permanente Fresno Medical Center on Wednesday morning to strike for higher wages in response to what the union calls a staffing crisis. Photo by Julianna Morano/Fresnoland

What's at stake?

Hundreds of workers picketed outside Fresno's Kaiser hospital Wednesday, pushing for higher wages to combat what they call a staffing crisis that's taking a toll on patient care.

On the telemetry floor at Kaiser Permanente’s Fresno Medical Center, hospital employee Juan Hernandez said short-staffing recently left vulnerable patients waiting over 30 minutes for help using the bathroom.

“Because they’re doing the work of two or three people,” he said of the technicians, “patients are waiting longer.”

“Just imagine somebody’s grandma saying they have to go to the bathroom, and they have to wait 30 or 40 minutes. The problem is a lot of them can’t wait that long. So then unfortunately,” he said, “they soil themselves in the bed. That’s not good for the patients.”

That’s just one of the things he’s seen that compelled him to join the healthcare worker strike in front of Kaiser’s Fresno facility on Wednesday. 

He was one of hundreds of workers picketing up and down Fresno Street to fight for a $26 minimum wage for Kaiser workers nationwide, among other proposals the union believes will help combat the healthcare provider’s “staffing crisis.”

Kaiser has pushed back against the union’s national minimum wage proposal and instead offered different minimum wages for California versus the rest of the states in which they operate.

In a statement Wednesday morning, Kaiser called the strike “unnecessary.”

It added that talks between management and the coalition of unions Tuesday continued “through the night” and that agreements were reached on several specific proposals.

The nonprofit is working to minimize disruptions to patient care through the stoppage, relying on physicians, managers, and in some cases, temporary contract workers to prop up services. 

Despite that, Kaiser anticipates some of its outpatient pharmacies and labs to close or move to reduced hours and plans to postpone some patients’ non-emergency appointments.

Workers on Wednesday told Fresnoland they’re hopeful Kaiser will be responsive to their demonstration, which is supposed to last through Friday.

“It would be personally insulting if they didn’t,” said Brianna Newman, a respiratory therapist at Kaiser.

Hundreds of workers line Fresno Street on Wednesday morning

The coalition represents a range of healthcare workers, including respiratory therapists, lab technicians, pharmacists, housekeepers, and other staff. 

Workers from the Fresno hospital told Fresnoland that they’ve seen staffing issues manifest in different ways across the departments they work in.

Orlando Vega, who works in the emergency room in Fresno, said understaffing is “unsafe” for patients, particularly in his department.

“We’re running like chickens with our heads cut off,” he said. “We’re trying to be at five places at once, trying to take care of critical patients.”

Newman, whose department diagnoses lung cancer in patients, said that for their patients, waiting longer for appointments due to short-staffing can be the difference between getting diagnosed with an earlier or more advanced stage of cancer.

“If a doctor finds something … and you can’t get an appointment for two months,” she said, “do you know the anguish you’re going to feel for those two months?”

What’s next for the union and Kaiser management?

The solution isn’t hiring more on-call workers but investing in benefited staff, said Melanie Reno, a cytotechnologist at the Fresno hospital. 

The coalition has been pushing for wage increases to better contend with not just the short-staffing but also the rising cost of living in areas across the country.

It has called out the nonprofit healthcare giant’s massive profits – $3 billion in profit in the first six months of 2023 – even while coalition members live in their cars.

Kaiser has countered the coalition’s $26 minimum wage proposal with a $23 offer for California specifically and $21 for the rest of the states where it operates facilities, according to its Oct. 2 statement.

It has also offered across-the-board wage increases from 12.5% to 16% over the next four years.

Workers said they hope the strike pushes Kaiser to bargain in good faith. The coalition has accused Kaiser of failing to show up to bargaining sessions multiple times since talks opened in April.

Unless a deal is reached, the strike is set to continue through Friday. 

Hernandez is not only looking to continue picketing for the next two days, but also plans to camp out in front of the hospital Wednesday night.

“I plan on bringing my tent out here,” he said.

He said he and his colleagues wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t important.

“We’re out here for our patients … our patients deserve better.”

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