Healthcare workers rally for new contract with Kaiser Permanente

Los Angeles, CA - September 04: Thousands of healthcare workers march down Vermont to call for the urgent need for improved working conditions, better support systems and increased investment in the healthcare workforce at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center in Hollywood on Monday, Sept. 4, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA. Event was organized by SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West and is co-sponsored by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
Thousands of healthcare workers marched down Vermont to call for improved working conditions. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

For the record:
9:54 p.m. Sept. 4, 2023: An earlier version of a photo caption misidentified an unamed protester being arrested as Keisha Stewart.

A Labor Day demonstration that blocked part of Sunset Boulevard led to the peaceful arrest of roughly two dozen people protesting Kaiser Permanente’s labor practices in front of the HMO's medical center in Hollywood.

Hundreds of workers marched from Los Feliz Elementary to the medical center's entrance around 11 a.m., many of them holding signs and dressed in their local union’s T-shirts. At the behest of police, organizers ushered most of the group onto the sidewalk, leaving in the cordoned-off street a circle of two dozen protesters who seated themselves on the asphalt.

At noon on the dot, helmeted Los Angeles Police Department officers bearing plastic handcuffs began arresting the workers seated in the street. One by one, officers approached each member of the circle, cuffed them behind their backs and escorted them to the booking center.

People hold signs reading "Our patients need more staff" and "I can't afford to live where I work."
Healthcare workers rally at Kaiser Permanente's main medical facility in Los Angeles on Monday. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The first two protesters to be led away were two older women seated in wheelchairs, whom officers gently wheeled toward a command post set up behind a Scientology building across from the hospital. One raised her arm in solidarity and called, “Viva la lucha,” to supporters as she passed.

As they were escorted to booking, several other protesters chanted along with the crowd: “What do we want? Safe staffing! When do we want it? Now!"

Los Angeles Police Lt. Letisia Ruiz said about 25 people were arrested, and that all were going to be cited and released. The SEIU-UHW said it would cover the arrested workers' fines and legal expenses.

The protest is part of an ongoing dispute between the Oakland-based HMO and a coalition of unions representing roughly 40% of its workforce.

The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which represents more than 85,000 healthcare workers in seven states and the District of Columbia, is negotiating its first contract renewal since 2019.

Workers say the pandemic decimated staffing to a degree that endangers patient and staff safety. They are calling for an increase in hiring, as well as a $25 per hour minimum wage for front-line health workers.

A woman wears a handmade placard reading, "We're fighting for healthcare workers."
Demonstrators form a circle on Sunset Boulevard during a protest by Kaiser Permanente workers. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Late last month, local Kaiser unions began voting on whether to authorize a strike in the event that no new agreement is reached before the current contract expires Sept. 30. On Friday, the union representing more than 3,000 workers in Colorado became the first of the coalition’s dozen unions to do so.

Were a strike to proceed, union leaders have said, it would be the largest strike of healthcare workers in the nation’s history.

In a statement released in advance of Monday’s protest, Kaiser Permanente said the hospital chain was “committed to bargaining with our Coalition unions in good faith and in the spirit of partnership.” The statement also expressed confidence that the two sides would reach an agreement in advance of the Sept. 30 deadline.

Kaiser maintains that it weathered the pandemic-related staffing crises better than other healthcare organizations, with an average employee turnover rate of 8.5%.

The organization hired more than 29,000 new employees in 2022, the statement said, and was on track to exceed that number this year.

Protesters banged drums and chanted as uniformed officers gathered on either end of the cordoned-off area.

Among those seated in the street was Darrell Jerome, a medical assistant at Kaiser Brea in Orange County. In his 30 years on the job, he said, he has never seen staffing levels as low as they are now.

“All of our departments are short-staffed," he said, despite Kaiser's earnings — the company reported $3.3 billion in net income in the first two quarters of this year. “They raised the rates and haven’t passed [the increase] on to the workers.” He said he was prepared to be arrested in order to bring attention to their cause.

Also in the street was Marisa Montanez. A lab tech at Kaiser’s Bellflower Clinic in Downey and a 21-year veteran of the system, she said she tore the meniscus in one of her knees racing back and forth between the lab and patient check-ins.

She frequently worked 12-hour shifts for six or seven days a week, she said, and had watched patient wait times grow. “We mean nothing to the executives,” she said.

“Our patients deserve better,” said Jessica Cruz, a licensed vocational nurse at the Kaiser medical center on Sunset. Workloads have doubled and tripled in her seven years with the system, she said, and she was prepared to risk arrest.

People wear signs and chant as they sit in the street.
Keisha Stewart, center, joins others in a human circle on Sunset Boulevard during the protest. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Montanez and Cruz were the last two arrested when they were led away at 12:15. Officers helped Montanez rise to her feet on her bad knee.

“We’ll be back!” the protesters chanted as the crowd began to disperse.

Processing went swiftly, and most of those arrested were walking free less than 15 minutes after being led away. Among them was Tracy McDaniel, a financial counselor at Kaiser’s West L.A. office.

McDaniel said she has been with the company for 26 years. In the last five years, however, “I have worked doubles and triples just to make ends meet,” she said.

“It’s really hard. I used to love working for Kaiser. I bragged about working for Kaiser because it was such a good job.”

The arrest was worth it, she said. And if it wasn’t enough to get executives’ attention, she and her colleagues were prepared to follow with a strike.

“I’ve never been in handcuffs,” she said. “I felt like I was liberated today.”

The tough conditions of the pandemic were one theme cited by the workers.

“We’re fighting for fair wages. We want to be treated like the heroes they said we were during the pandemic,” said Christina McDermott, a surgical technician at Kaiser’s Alton/Sand Canyon facility in Irvine.

McDermott said she used the same set of personal protective equipment for a month straight during the pandemic, and often slept in her car or a tent to avoid bringing the virus into her home.

Now, she said “we’re at the point where if we don’t work overtime, we can’t pay our bills.”

A police officer leads a handcuffed person in scrubs.
A police officer arrests a protester. The SEIU-UHW said it would cover the arrested workers' fines and legal expenses. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

“When you look at who’s doing the work and who’s earning the income, it’s completely off balance,” said Ryan Serrano, a customer service representative at Kaiser’s regional office in Pasadena.

He and colleague Lisa Scales, who handled Medi-Cal payments, said they were frustrated at the gap between high executive compensation and diminishing resources for staff and patients alike. They said they speak frequently to patients frustrated with long wait times and difficulties paying their bills.

“We hear their complaints, and all we offer them is debt,” Serrano said. “We’re very much on their side.”

The march is a fitting cap on a summer of labor unrest in Los Angeles, where more than 100,000 workers in fields ranging from film and television to hotel staffing have walked off the job and taken to the picket line following failed contract negotiations.

Even in a restive year, the healthcare dispute stands out. The Kaiser contract talks are the largest single-employer labor negotiations going on in the U.S. right now, according to the coalition.

While specifics differ in the various disputes, shared frustration over rising costs has forged alliances across unions.

“There’s a perception that we have little in common, but we’re both fighting for our future,” playwright Sam Chanse told The Times recently as she walked a picket line alongside hotel workers.

Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.