STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Unionized nurses and other health care workers in California and Oregon voted to authorize a strike. Their union is negotiating with Kaiser Permanente, which runs a number of hospitals and clinics there. The nurses and others are not striking now, just authorizing a strike. Though it raises the prospect of a mid-pandemic walkout. The Alliance of Health Care Unions is objecting to a proposed two-tiered wage system. Kaiser is proposing lower wages for workers hired in the future than for people on the job now.
Labor economist Jane Carter, who is part of the union negotiating team, objects to that proposal and also objects to the wages for current workers.
JANE CARTER: We've been in bargaining for months now. And Kaiser has taken a position. They're claiming that the sky is falling or will be falling in the future. And they they've not proven that whatsoever. In fact, they're a very profitable company, but they're asking for significant cuts from our membership, from our frontline heroes that worked day in and day out during the pandemic, who fought to keep people alive and worried about taking the virus home to their own families, suffering through PTSD. And Kaiser's proposal is pretty harsh.
INSKEEP: We called Kaiser, and they said, quote, "our initial economic proposal includes wage increases for all current employees and no changes to the current retirement plan." Also, guarantees no wage cuts for current employees - what's wrong with that?
CARTER: That's incorrect. So on average, over the last few years, we've had wage increases between 2% to 3% across the board. Kaiser's current proposal is a 1% increase across the board for current employees and only a 1% matching on what we call the defined contribution bonus.
INSKEEP: It sounds like then, when they say wage increases for all current employees, that's correct. But you're saying it's a very small increase and less than you're accustomed to. Is that right?
CARTER: It's a small increase. But the problem - the detrimental aspect of Kaiser's proposal is starting in 2023 - so not too far around the corner - new hires will start out at rates between 26% to 39% less than current employees.
INSKEEP: That's what a two-tiered proposal is.
INSKEEP: The current people get their current salaries or a little better, but new people are paid less. What's wrong with that?
CARTER: A two-tier system is pretty draconian in and of itself. Because it starts off paying workers so substantially less than current employees, it creates division. So if you have an employee who is one or two years in and the two tiers kicks in, that new employee two years later is making 26% to 39% less than that other employee. And at one point, that workforce will be divided between the first tier and the second tier. So what it creates then is basically a second-class set of workers.
INSKEEP: Let me give you an opportunity to respond to another part of Kaiser's statement here. They say, and this is just a quote, "at the heart of our dispute is the fact that health care is increasingly unaffordable, and escalating wages are half the cost of health care." Essentially, they're saying that your union is responsible for the fact that health care costs are going up and up or at least partly responsible. Do you accept that?
CARTER: I don't. In fact, UNAC/UHCP and the alliance unions would welcome working with Kaiser to cut costs. In fact, we have. We've proposed multiple ideas at the table and tried to discuss them, and Kaiser has not even entertained any of the ideas that we've put forward. Second, corporate executives are refusing to come off this idea of a two-tier proposal. And their slash-and-burn proposal ultimately will harm patients.
INSKEEP: Do you feel that you have leverage because so many employers are struggling to find workers anyway? And here you are in this particularly difficult field where you just said a lot of people are contemplating leaving.
CARTER: Let's be very clear. We're facing a nationwide nurse shortage. In fact, Moody's in 2018 issued a dire report saying that this would be the case, that health care organizations would have to pull out all the stops to attract and retain experienced RNs by offering higher salaries and other incentives. And that was 2018. So fast-forward three years, and just recently, Moody's issued a more dire warning saying that the delta variant and health care provider burnout is actually intensifying and making those staffing challenges even worse and that health systems would need to offer more lucrative incentives to pay for skilled nursing staff than even previously predicted. I think that Kaiser is being shortsighted by offering a proposal that divides our future workforce and pays them 26% less than their current colleagues make now.
INSKEEP: Jane Carter, labor economist, thanks so much.
CARTER: Thanks, Steve. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.