As many as 18,000 nurses walked off the job at Kaiser Permanente hospitals Tuesday to picket over Ebola safeguards and patient-care standards at the company's Northern California headquarters, amid strained union contract talks.
Several dozen nurses walked out of the hospital at 2425 Geary Blvd. in San Francisco and onto the picket line as they launched the two-day strike at 7 a.m.
The strike is set to last until 7 a.m. Thursday and will affect at least 21 Kaiser hospitals and 35 clinics around the Bay Area and surrounding areas, from Sacramento and Oakland to Fremont and down to San Jose.
The strike comes after contract talks that began in July between the hospital system and the California Nurses Association, the union that represents the Kaiser nurses, recently hit a wall.
Kaiser will remain open during the strike, though some elective procedures and routine appointments may be rescheduled, company officials said. Replacement nurses are in place, union officials said.
A California Nurses Association union official said nurses are striking over claims there has been an erosion of patient-care standards in Kaiser facilities for months and that the company has failed to adopt optimal safeguards for Ebola.
But California Hospital Association spokeswoman Jan Emerson-Shea said the nurses' union, which has been in contract talks since July, is using the crisis to further its own agenda. The association represents and advocates for California hospitals, patients and communities.
"The union is in contact negotiations with the hospitals they are striking. They are using Ebola as a ruse," she said Monday.
Kaiser said in a statement that there would be no impact on patient services nor the emergency department. Deborah Raymond, a senior vice president and area manager for Kaiser San Francisco, said a contingency plan was immediately created when the CNA gave its 10-day strike notice.
“The nurses contracted, we brought them in several days early. We’ve done lots of training with them,” Raymond said. “We verified all their competencies, and so they’re prepared to take great care of our patients.”
The registered nurses on strike said they need Kaiser to focus on enhancing staffing levels to ensure safe patient services, for instance, not rushing a patient out on early discharge. Raymond said the hospital system matches the nursing staff to patient needs.
“We have incredibly safe staffing. We have additional resources available to our nurses every day that can help support nursing staff,” Raymond said. “It is concerning that there would be any issue raised about unsafe staffing because we monitor that every shift, every day of the year.”
When asked about any plans Kaiser might have to cut staff in the future, Raymond responded, “No, we match our staffing to what our patient needs are. There’s no change in that practice.”
The nurses on strike countered that’s not the case.
“That need to just rush or hurry can get in the way of us always doing the right thing,” said Merrie Joe Musi, a 40-year registered nurse who works in labor and delivery. “We don’t mind missing a break here and there. It’s those days where you go for hours and you don’t have time to stop and refresh yourself. We’re not doing best by ourselves we can’t possibly do the best by our patients.”
In a statement, Kaiser Permanente said there was no good time for a strike, but called it “particularly irresponsible” to hold one entering the flu season.
“We’re concerned CNA would call a strike right now as we’ve been at the bargaining table,” Raymond added. “They presented over 30 proposals on operational needs of the nursing staff. We have countered those proposals and waiting for CNA to work with us on that.”
The nurses said that’s not so, stressing they want to communicate to move talks forward, but they needed to strike to ensure the hospital system knew they meant business.
“We’re not being irresponsible, we’re being responsible because of the fact that Kaiser has lost touch with its nurses and patient care for past few years,” said Peter Kilgallen, another registered nurse with Kaiser in SF. “We’ve been extremely short staffed. We get phone calls and texts at home for extra shifts.”
The two-day strike coincides with a national “day of action” that involves the National Nurses United union, with thousands of nurses in 14 other states and the District of Columbia rallying for more training and protective gear in Ebola response.
Nurses said they want to have a commitment from Kaiser that they’ll get virally impenetrable hazmat suits, as well as training on how to put on and take off the suits – a period they say poses a great threat of contracting the disease. Kaiser said it thoroughly follows state and federal protocols on Ebola preparation and response.