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Kaiser workers rally for fair wages, job security

SEIU-UHW healthcare workers protest layoffs, relocations and wage proposals outside Kaiser Permanente on Wednesday May 2, 2018 in Sacramento, Calif.
SEIU-UHW healthcare workers protest layoffs, relocations and wage proposals outside Kaiser Permanente on Wednesday May 2, 2018 in Sacramento, Calif. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Dozens of Kaiser Permanente workers -- members of Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West -- shouted their demands for job security and equal wages in a protest Wednesday outside the health-care giant's South Sacramento Medical Center.

"Kaiser, Kaiser you can't hide!" yelled chant leaders, and their peers responded with: "We can see your greedy side!"

Sean Wherley, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, said the union’s members are concerned about losing hundreds of jobs in pharmacy warehouse facilities as a result of outsourcing and in call centers as a result of a shift to online technology.

Moreover, Wherley said, in negotiations with other unions, the company has proposed paying new hires in the Sacramento region 10 percent less than it pays those in the Bay Area. They’ve proposed a steeper 20-percent wage difference for new hires in the Central Valley, compared with their peers in the Bay Area, he said.

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John Nelson, Kaiser’s vice president of communications, said the health-care company is planning technological improvements at its call centers but that it is still weighing options and, as part of that process, is looking at how it would affect its workforce. The company shared options with union leaders, he said, to keep them informed and engaged in the process.

As for the job reductions in the pharmacy operations, Nelson said in a prepared statement: “From time to time, we need to make business decisions to effectively and efficiently meet the needs of our members. The proposed changes to our pharmacy operations will ultimately give our members and patients better service, at a lower cost, and help meet tougher government standards around controlled substances.”

This is one of 33 demonstrations that the union plans at Kaiser facilities up and down the state. This is second round of such protests since February. Kaiser members will see other local protests May 16 at Kaiser Roseville, May 17 at Kaiser Sacramento on Morse and May 18 at Kaiser’s Sacramento Call Center on Arden Way. The rallies are not a strike, and all facilities will continue to provide patient care and conduct business.

Steve Allman, who works in Kaiser’s pharmacy warehouse in Downey, said he is one of about 70 Kaiser employees who are losing their jobs in October because the company chose to outsource the work. Allman said that he’s hoping to find another job within Kaiser but that it will be difficult since so many of his coworkers will be looking at the same time.

Nelson said that Kaiser Permanente is growing, adding more than 13,000 jobs in California since 2015. The company, which currently has more than 12,000 open positions, is one of the largest private employers in California, he said, with more than 149,000 employees and 16,000 physicians in the state.

Besides the 70 job cuts in Downey, Wherley said, Kaiser also plans to terminate 175 other warehouse workers in Oakland, Livermore and Los Angeles. If the company proceeds with plans for technology shifts, roughly 700 employees in call centers in Los Angeles, Baldwin Park and Woodland Hills also could be laid off or relocated.

Nelson stated: “Our goal is to take all reasonable steps to redeploy the affected employees within Kaiser Permanente. If retention is not feasible given the circumstances, we provide tools and assistance, including up to one year of salary and benefits equal to the affected employees’ then-current compensation, to support the affected employees and help them gain other employment opportunities.”

Wherley said this show of concern is at odds with the company’s proposals to its workers. If the call center workers are not terminated, they could be relocated to a site where their jobs would be covered by a different union with a lower pay scale. And, he added, the plan to implement regional wage scales will hurt morale.

Georgette Bradford, an ultrasound technologist at Kaiser’s Point West facility in Sacramento, said the concept of multi-tiered wages is not new to Kaiser. When she was hired 14 years ago, she said, Kaiser had lower wages for Sacramento workers than it did for employees doing the same work in the Bay Area. The union fought to bring parity, she said, and after years of gradual increases, it happened.

Although Kaiser has made no formal proposal to SEIU-UHW to move to multi-tiered wages, Bradford said the scent is in the air, given that the company has made proposals to other unions as part of negotiations this year. People say that the cost of living is different and that market wages vary between the two regions, said Bradford, a member of the UHW executive committee, but many SEIU-UHW members working in the Bay Area live in Sacramento or Stockton because they’ve been priced out of housing in the Bay Area.

The Bay Area Council, in a report on the Northern California megaregion that comprises the Bay Area, Sacramento, northern San Joaquin valleys and Monterey Bay area, found that roughly 175,000 workers commute into the Bay Area for work from elsewhere in the megaregion or even just outside it.

“The biggest problem, outside the morality of it – denying equal work for equal pay – is that you’re short-changing your community,” Bradford said. “The pay that goes to our members does not just disappear into the ether. Our members are using that to pay for buying goods in their communities. They’re paying income tax. They’re paying sales tax. So, when you are off the bat, unilaterally lowering the wages in an area, you are shortchanging the community.”

The Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West represents more than 55,000 Kaiser workers, 2,073 of them at Kaiser South Sacramento, 6600 Bruceville Road. Wherley said the SEIU-UHW contract with Kaiser expires in September.

Nelson said: “We are committed to providing our employees excellent wages and benefits wherever they work. We respect and value all our employees, and we are proud that Kaiser Permanente is regularly recognized as a best place to work, providing competitive wages and benefits.”

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