The healthcare industry is grappling with an unparalleled situation. Staff shortages have brought healthcare workers to a breaking point. Savonnda Blaylock, a dedicated pharmacy technician with 22 years of service at Kaiser Permanente in northern California, is facing an unprecedented decision. She and 75,000 fellow healthcare workers are considering participating in American history’s most prominent healthcare strike.
Given the staff shortage crisis she witnesses at the hospital both as a nurse and as a patient, she has no other choice than to walk off her job, Blaylock stated.
Blaylock explained, “When we try to schedule appointments for my mom, they say they don’t have enough staff.” She added, “I used to love working at Kaiser and wanted to retire here. Now, I’m thinking of leaving, even though I don’t want to.”
A group of unions organized the potential strike, including nurses, therapists, technicians, dietary workers, maintenance, and janitors. This strike could disrupt healthcare in several states for three days, including California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Virginia, and Washington, DC.
Kaiser Permanente, a healthcare giant, insists it has contingency plans to ensure patient care remains uninterrupted during the strike. In a statement, Kaiser expressed disappointment but affirmed its commitment to reaching an agreement beneficial to employees, members, and the organization.
Blaylock, a union negotiating team member, claims that Kaiser is neglecting the urgent need to address the staffing crisis. Although Kaiser acknowledges the issue. It states that it’s part of a larger problem with not enough healthcare workers across the country, especially after many left their jobs during the Great Resignation of 2021-22. The company highlights that over five million healthcare workers across the country left their positions during this period.
Kaiser reports hiring 29,000 new staff members in 2022, totalling 224,000 non-physician employees. In 2023, they hired an additional 22,000, with almost 10,000 filling union-represented roles. Kaiser emphasizes that its compensation exceeds that of competing healthcare systems by up to 20%.
John August, the director of the study of healthcare labor relations at Cornell University, explains, “A strike is always emotional, no matter your profession. But for healthcare workers, it is different. You’re leaving babies, the elderly, the sick. There’s no question there’s more of an emotional strain.”
Nursing shortages and hard working conditions have led to a surge in strikes and union-organizing efforts. The pandemic revealed that many healthcare workers felt their employers were not prioritizing their safety or that of their patients. As a result, the industry’s staffing shortage has been identified as the most significant risk to American patients by ECRI, an independent healthcare research firm.
Dr. Marcus Schabacker, CEO of ECRI, emphasizes that there is no quick solution to the staffing crisis. Factors contributing to the problem include:
- An Aging Population.
- The Backlog of Elective Procedures Deferred During The Pandemic.
- The Need to Treat Patients With Post-COVID Complications.
All of these factors put pressure on an already understaffed system. The nursing shortage is predicted to worsen. The estimates suggest a one million nurses nationwide shortfall by 2025. The median age of registered nurses is 52, with 20% aged 65 or older.
Schabacker points out that tired and overworked nurses can make mistakes that harm patients. Even though a nurse’s strike might not help patients immediately, it shows how healthcare workers are desperate to improve conditions and provide safer care.
As the nation sees the biggest healthcare strike in history, it is clear that the healthcare workers’ woes extend far beyond wage issues. The commitment demonstrated by the healthcare workers to their patients remains unwavering despite the hard choice to strike.
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