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Kaiser plans 200 layoffs in Northern California; union says unexpected move terrified members

Kaiser Permanente will lay off 200 workers from its workforce in Northern California as it changes up how some departments will operate, resulting in the need for fewer staff in some positions, according to a statement the company sent The Sacramento Bee Friday evening.

In the statement, company leaders said: "Kaiser Permanente is continuing to grow. We continue to be one of the largest private employers in California with more than 149,000 employees and 16,000 physicians in the state. We continue to add jobs, with currently more than 2,300 open staff positions in the state."

As part of a labor-management partnership agreement, Kaiser executives have long worked with employees and unions to find other jobs in the health-care giant's ranks for represented employees when positions are eliminated.

"If we are unable to do so, we provide benefits to eligible employees that typically include education and training benefits, outplacement services, and up to a year of wages and benefits," company leaders stated.

The job cuts will affect members of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West who work in respiratory care, environmental services and other departments, said Sacramento resident Georgette Bradford, who sits on the labor group's 27-member executive committee.

Representatives of the National Union of Healthcare Workers and the California Nurses Association said their memberships are not affected in these layoffs.

Typically, Bradford said, Kaiser has alerted the union well in advance of actually eliminating positions, given union representatives the opportunity to make employees aware of the coming operational changes, steer them to other available positions and explain the severance process.

"None of that was done," Bradford said. "The way it was done was like a thief in the night. It was very disconcerting the way Kaiser rolled it out. They didn't understand the optics, and this got pushed back until Monday morning, as far as pulling our members in, but the cat was already out of the bag....The damage is already done in terms of terrifying and confusing our members."

SEIU-UHW leaders got word of the layoffs from Kaiser Thursday evening, Bradford said, and company leaders also told them they planned to contact affected employees Friday morning.

In addressing the communications plan, Kaiser leaders said: "As part of our regular process, we communicated with our union partners before notifying employees, and union leaders asked us to delay until Monday. At that time, we will begin discussing the process, support, transition opportunities, and benefits with affected staff."

In early April, SEIU-UHW members demonstrated at the Kaiser Sacramento Medical Center on Morse Avenue and at 29 other Kaiser facilities statewide, demanding recognition and additional support. Despite posting $6.4 billion in profits last year, Kaiser slashed performance sharing bonuses for SEIU-UHW workers, Bradford said.

"There's a disconnect between the thinking of Kaiser executives and the experience of frontline workers," Donna Norton, a licensed vocational nurse at Kaiser Vacaville, said at the time of the protests. "Workplace exposures have kept us home, as has the traumatic toll of working through this pandemic. So many caregivers have been physically exhausted from taking on extra shifts week after week and are mentally worn down. We need extra support from our employer right now, not less."

The workers called upon Kaiser to supporting Assembly Bill 650, the Health Care Worker Recognition and Retention Act. If passed by the California legislature, it would require employers across the health-care industry to pay dividends to all non-executive employees who worked during the pandemic.

But that bill and other measures requiring cash outlays from hospitals came under fire Wednesday during a media conference call with four hospital industry executives, including CHA Chief Executive Officer Carmela Coyle and Enloe Medical Center Mike Wiltermood. They called for a moratorium on legislation that would raise expenses for their institutions and systems.

The COVID-19 pandemic put "us firmly in the red," Wiltermood said. "On top of that, the state legislature is currently contemplating an unfunded mandate in AB 650 that could put us in technical default of our bonds and which threatens our long-term ability to support our community when it needs us most. We need relief."

Bradford said that, while some hospital systems may be hurting, Kaiser made a very good profit in 2020 and yet has cut bonuses for SEIU-UHW workers.

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