Labor strikes are on the rise across the health care industry as workers feel overwhelmed by the demands of the Covid-19 era and increasingly concerned about pay and staffing shortages.
Dozens of strikes across the country
According to a tracker by Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR), there have been at least 30 strikes involving health care workers so far this year.
It's part of a broader wave of labor activity across industries: The Cornell tracker shows strikes against a total of 178 employers this year, including 12 strikes involving at least 1,000 workers. According to the Washington Post, workers and labor leaders say strikes are motivated by a lack of high-quality jobs and concern that wage growth is not keeping pace with inflation.
In the health care industry, unions representing 31,000 Kaiser Permanente employees have authorized walkouts, with unions seeking 4% annual pay raises without a two-tier wage system.
Kaiser has proposed 1% annual pay raises over the next three years alongside its two-tier system. Arlene Peasnall, Kaiser's SVP of human resources, said the company's proposed pay scale reflects a response to "unsustainable" labor costs.
"Affordability is a real issue in health care, which was highlighted once again during the pandemic," she said. "We are trying to be available to more people, and we cannot do that if we are too expensive."
Elsewhere in the industry, more than 700 nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital in Massachusetts have been on strike for seven months, and around 2,000 people working at Mercy Hospital in New York have been on strike since the beginning of October.
Why health care workers are striking
Many health care workers have said they were working in emergency mode during the height of the pandemic last year, but the pandemic has continued to drag on, and many workers said they can't handle it anymore.
"It got to the point where seeing signs outside the hospitals—'Heroes Work Here'—appeared a little hollow," said Denise Duncan, president of United Nurses of California/Union of Health Care Professionals. "It's almost like it's been forgotten."
According to Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education at Cornelll's ILR, the pandemic "was a wake-up call, because it wasn't just you could get injured on the job, but going to work could kill you. Workers are feeling like they're working harder than ever and they put themselves out there during Covid and risked their lives for what?"
These conditions, combined with concerns over pay and staffing shortages, have led health care workers to strike more than ever before, Politico reports.
"From our members, I’ve never heard the word 'strike' uttered so many times, whether they're covered by a contract or not. Whether they're in negotiations or not," said Jamie Lucas, executive director of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals. "They're fed up. The reasons have always been there, but there's a new realization that they have the upper hand." (Bogage, Washington Post, 10/17; Tahir et al., Politico, 10/20; García-Hodges, NBC News, 10/14; Herman, Axios, 10/12)