Staffing Crisis at Health Care Giant Kaiser Permanente Hurts Patient Care—Say 95% of its Workers Surveyed
The 53,000-member Alliance of Health Care Unions calls on KP to partner for solutions to halt the slide in patient care and access.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA—A staffing crisis at Kaiser Permanente is hurting patient care and access, according to a survey of a huge cross section of KP’s own health care staff—from the registered nurses who spend more time with patients than anyone else on the care team to the lab technicians who run the tests that capture intimate details of a patient’s health profile; from the environmental services staff who clean patient rooms to the call center staff who answer their urgent calls; and many more classifications. The Alliance of Health Care Unions (AHCU), which represents tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente health care workers in 21 affiliated unions, conducted the survey between March and July of this year.
Nearly 95% of almost 9,000 AHCU members surveyed said the staffing crisis is affecting patient care and access. More than 90% said their own departments were often short-staffed.
Patients aren’t just numbers for Alliance members. Patients are human beings with needs sometimes small and sometimes desperate, whom alliance health care workers see, talk to, interact with, and struggle to provide care for every day in Kaiser hospitals and clinics throughout Southern California and other regions across the United States with Kaiser facilities.
Members of Alliance-affiliated unions have been speaking out about the crisis.
“Nurse staffing is chronically short. Every other role is short-staffed too: respiratory technicians, X-ray techs, certified nursing assistants, wound care specialists, social workers, everyone. We rarely have the resources and support to safely care for patients without the residual effect of burnout all around. You can’t provide the best quality care to patients when you’re working on fumes,” said Christina Aguirre, RN, who works at Kaiser Zion Medical Center in San Diego and is a member of United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP), an Alliance union.
“Poor staffing of nurse anesthetists has resulted in delays in surgical access and increased outside medical costs,” according to Thomas Bachtler, a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA), DNP, CENP, and president of the Kaiser Permanente Nurse Anesthetists Association (KPNAA), another alliance member union.
Jessie Mendoza, a pharmacy assistant, said short staffing “is burning out workers and causing patients to wait for weeks to receive much-needed medications.” Mendoza is a member of the Alliance-affiliated United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 324.
“Due to short staffing at our pharmacy, I am working so fast that I am concerned about making a mistake and I never want to hurt any of our members because I was rushing,” said Johnathan T., a pharmacist assistant at Kaiser Woodland Hills, a member of UFCW Local 770.
The American Journal of Critical Care has demonstrated a link between medication errors and the poor mental health of caregivers. Eighty-eight percent of Alliance members surveyed said the staffing crisis has negatively affected their mental health or that of their coworkers. More than half of those surveyed said they’ve considered leaving the KP workforce due to short staffing. The implications for patient care at Kaiser are clear.
“The whole situation isn’t just numbers on a page—it’s patients and members facing those extra-long waits for calls at the call center, day in and day out,” said Sarah Lopez, an appointment clerk for Kaiser’s Virtual Medical Center and a member of United Steel Workers (USW) Local 7600.
“It’s embarrassing to have the same conversations with patients over and over again about how they won’t be able to be seen for months for a follow-up appointment,” said one Alliance member surveyed.
These numbers and firsthand reports from frontline health care workers come in the context of a nationwide health care staffing crisis, where average turnover costs result in hospitals losing $4.4 – $6.9 million each year—according to a report by UNAC/UHCP from last year: The Dangerous Impact of the National Nursing Shortage.
The Alliance won a hard-fought battle for a new contract in 2021 with Kaiser Permanente. A hallmark of that agreement was language requiring KP to work in close partnership with the Alliance on solutions to staffing issues across the country and at every level of the organization. Alliance members consistently bring ideas to the table, but Kaiser doesn’t incorporate them into staffing policy and planning. Staffing impacts patient care and should be an urgent priority for administrators as much as caregivers. In May, frustrated by a lack of action by Kaiser and other hospital systems, more than 500 UNAC/UHCP nurses and health care professionals rallied in Sacramento, calling for more permanent, systemic solutions to the staffing problems that have reached crisis levels.
“They’ve spent years band-aiding all these problems. I know the nurses are sick and tired. We’ve tried for many, many years to bring solutions, working in partnership,” said Nikki Avey, a registered nurse in the Mother-Baby unit at Kaiser San Diego Medical Center. “Local leadership sends us to regional leadership, regional sends us back to local. We’ve offered short- and long-term solutions. We meet only roadblocks. We’re the ones on the frontlines, in the trenches, while they’re up there on the hills, safe in their offices.”
“I call upon Kaiser Permanente to recognize the urgency of our situation,” said Micheal Barnett, President of USW 7600. “It’s time to join forces with the unions and forge a comprehensive strategy to overcome the staffing crisis. Our patients’ well-being, our collective future, and our legacy of excellence depend on it.”
“We’ve continued to see fatigue, work-life imbalance, decreased morale, and burnout, and layered on top—new challenges with PTSD,” said Charmaine Morales, RN, UNAC/UHCP President. “The care we give is the heart of the patient experience at KP—and we must take care of the workers holistically, their physical and mental well-being, so they can give their best. Research shows that full, safe staffing leads to better outcomes with patients. We must address the safety gaps and make sure all of us – regardless of what we do or where we work – are safe on the job. Our care providers must have the confidence and trust that both union and employer have their back.”
Alliance members and leaders are available for follow-up interviews.
The Alliance of Health Care Unions (AHCU) is a union federation of 21 local unions representing over 52,000 Kaiser Permanente workers in various roles, including registered nurses, lab technicians, environmental services technicians, healthcare professionals, call center staff, engineers, security officers, and many more, across California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Mid-Atlantic States, Colorado, and Georgia.