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Angela Jensen, a former nurse and organizer for OPEIU Local 30, participates in a demonstration on July 26 outside of the new San Marcos Kaiser hospital on Craven Road. Photo by Laura Place
Angela Jensen, a former nurse and organizer for OPEIU Local 30, participates in a demonstration on July 26 outside of the new San Marcos Kaiser hospital on Craven Road. Photo by Laura Place
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Kaiser health care workers picket as San Marcos hospital opens

SAN MARCOS — Kaiser Permanente health care workers from across North County could be seen picketing in support of increased staffing in San Marcos this week, a few hundred feet from the location of a brand-new hospital set to open in early August.

OPEIU Local 30, which represents Kaiser Permanente workers in the San Diego region, joined other unions in the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions in issuing a 10-day picket notice on July 13, stating that Kaiser leadership has not taken them seriously in national contract bargaining.

Since then, workers in California, Colorado, Washington and Oregon have picketed outside of various Kaiser facilities. Along with those outside the San Marcos Medical Offices on Craven Road, a sea of healthcare staff in blue OPEIU Local 30 shirts also demonstrated at Zion Medical Center in San Diego.

Workers say that the high cost of living has led to staffing shortages at Kaiser facilities, causing burnout among employees and decreased quality of care for their patients. To draw and retain more employees, members are demanding improved wages and benefits and more professional growth and education opportunities.

“We can’t attract or keep members when they can’t afford to live here. We have union members living in their cars and members living in one room with their whole family,” said OPEIU Local 30 Vice President Catherine Engler, a licensed vocational nurse in Carlsbad who has been with Kaiser for 36 years.

Workers’ contracts were last updated in 2019 and are set to expire in September.

Kaiser healthcare workers participate in a demonstration by OPEIU Local 30  on July 26 outside of the new San Marcos Kaiser hospital on Craven Road. Photo by Laura Place
Kaiser health care workers participate in a demonstration by OPEIU Local 30 on July 26 outside of the new San Marcos Kaiser hospital on Craven Road. Photo by Laura Place
The San Marcos Medical Center, the region’s newest Kaiser Permanente Hospital, opens August 9 on Craven Road. Photo by Laura Place
The San Marcos Medical Center, the region’s newest Kaiser Permanente Hospital, opens August 9 on Craven Road. Photo by Laura Place

Frank Hurtarte, Kaiser senior vice president of human resources for Southern California and Hawaii, said Kaiser is committed to reaching an agreement but insisted that many members already make above-market wages.

“Given where we are in the bargaining process, it is clear that the picketing announced by the Coalition on July 13 is not about drawing attention to new issues, but rather an attempt to create some kind of bargaining leverage,” Hurtarte said.

“Our priority is to reach an agreement that ensures we can continue to provide market-competitive pay and outstanding benefits. We are confident that we will be able to reach an agreement that strengthens our position as a best place to work and ensures that the high-quality care our members expect from us remains affordable and easy to access.”

Hurtarte said Kaiser also reached an agreement in April with the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions to hire 10,000 people nationwide during 2023 and that they are making “great progress” toward that goal.

One of the Coalition’s demands is a $25 hourly minimum wage for healthcare workers. Hurtarte said negotiating over whether to provide a national wage increase for all members or local market-based increases has been the central issue in bargaining.

“In bargaining this week, we have discussed with the Coalition the fact that in some markets, we are paying 28% above the market average wage rates,” Hurtarte said.

New hospital

Over 1,000 health care staff have been hired to work at the $400 million new hospital in San Marcos, scheduled to open Aug. 9.

The new facility was built next to the existing Kaiser outpatient medical offices on Craven Road, breaking ground in 2020. It features 206 beds, an emergency department, eight operating rooms, an intensive care and neonatal intensive care unit, and a labor and delivery department.

“We’ve created 1,100 new jobs to support this medical center. In addition to health care, it also has provided and is providing well-paid technical jobs,” said Kaiser North County Chief Operating Officer Max Villalobos.

Kaiser leaders boast the center’s state-of-the-art robotics surgery program and amenity-filled patient rooms. It is expected to serve folks in San Marcos, Escondido, Oceanside, Encinitas and other surrounding areas.

The hospital offers another option for Kaiser members in North County who have previously relied on Kaiser plan partnerships with neighboring hospitals like Palomar Medical Center in Escondido and Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside.

It is unknown if these plan partnerships will continue in years to come, with Kaiser’s San Marcos hospital now on the scene.

Kaiser nurses Deanna Smith, right, and Denise McKenzie share a smile during an OPEIU Local 30 demonstration on July 26 outside of the new San Marcos Kaiser hospital on Craven Road. Photo by Laura Place
Kaiser nurses Deanna Smith, right, and Denise McKenzie share a smile during an OPEIU Local 30 demonstration on July 26 outside of the new San Marcos Kaiser hospital on Craven Road. Photo by Laura Place
Max Villalobos, Kaiser Permanente Chief Operating Officer for North County, celebrates the completion of the new hospital in San Marcos with community leaders on July 28. Photo by Laura Place
Max Villalobos, Kaiser Permanente Chief Operating Officer for North County, celebrates the completion of the new hospital in San Marcos with community leaders on July 28. Photo by Laura Place

OPEIU Local 30 members say while the new hospital is needed to fill a gap in services in North County, investing money in supporting staff is just as, if not more important.

“You’ve gotta remember where you came from. It’s wonderful we have a beautiful new hospital, but we have members who are leaving Kaiser because they can’t afford to see their own doctors,” said Deanna Smith, a licensed vocational nurse in Escondido.

OPEIU Local 30 also claims that Kaiser has more than enough money to pay workers better, having seen profits increase by around $20 billion in the past five years.

“They just choose not to spend it,” said Binh Nguyen, an X-ray technician of 19 years in San Marcos. “They’re telling us we’re overpaid by like 20%, but nobody’s applying.”

Patient care concerns

OPEIU Local 30 members say that patients will continue to experience negative impacts in their healthcare journey without staffing increases and improved support for workers.

This manifests in monthslong wait times to get a needed appointment and patients feeling rushed during visits to make room for more patients.

Where Kaiser workers have been picketing, many hold signs stating “Patient Need, Not Corporate Greed.”

“When we don’t have the staff available to keep up, they suffer, and that weighs heavy on us,” Engler said.

Smith said she typically works in a module with one doctor, at least four nurses, and medical assistants. However, they are frequently one person short, so they all have to share patient responsibilities.

“Right then and there, your patient care goes down, waits go up, and that’s when mistakes happen. It’s like, I didn’t check that patient in, and now I’m giving them medication, and it takes time to review the chart,” Smith said.

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