USA: Kaiser strike has a Filipino face

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(Words and photos by Dionesio C. Grava) 

There was this Facebook gab supposedly about an instruction for employees of one hospital to indicate their respective countries of origin by sticking a pin each on a huge wall map. Only very few of the pins were stuck outside the Philippines.

I thought the topic was a good way to start a conversation as I joined a small group of friendlylooking male nurses huddled by the wayside fronting the Kaiser Permanente Hospital near Sunset and Vermont avenues Tuesday morning. Does the story refers to Kaiser and the Filipino nurses? Save for a few chuckle and the excuse that only their spokesman was allowed to talk to reporters, they crossed the street together with the greater mass as the light turned green. And one thing more. They told me to just look at the people around.

Indeed most everyone holding aloft placards going their way and an identical group going my way — there were two parallel lines — were mostly of my features, my skin. Ditto with someone making noise with a drum and two others barking on a megaphone.

One said, “No contract!” And the other was joined by picketers in shouting back, “No peace!”

Barker 1, “Workers united! Response, “We’ll never be defeated!”

“What do we want?” “Contract!”

“When do we want it?” “Now!” Mostly Filipinos all. The picketers crowded the curbs on both sides of the street waiting for the stop signal to turn green. They waved their placards and shouted with glee with each approving honk of a passing car. Then the light changed again and they crossed once more to the other side of the street right in front of the KP building.

The spokesman turned out to be a lady. She’s from Pasig, a product of Far Eastern University. Teresita Costales, 57, arrived in Los Angeles in 1978 and a 25-year employee at Kaiser. Married with three children — the youngest is 22 years — Costales is a critical care nurse and the interim vice president of the National Union of Health Workers (NUHW).

About 95% of the thousandplus in-patient nurses at KP are Filipinos, she said. Another Filipina nurse who later joined in the conversation agreed. According to Irma Dufelmeier the Filipino employees are so numerous that among themselves they good naturedly rename Kaiser as the Philippine General Hospital of Los Angeles.

One of the guys bearing a placard nearby gave a thumbs up to his colleagues. Charlie Zhao, 54, said that it is true there are so many employees of Filipino descent in the hospital, adding that “Filipinos are good people, many of them my friends.” He arrived from China in 1987. He managed to say he’s a dietician at Kaiser before someone took his placard in exchange of a conga to make noise of as he joined the picket line crossing the street.

Like Teresita, Irma is a graduate of FEU and has been with KP for 25 years. She came here in 1979 and is a critical care nurse in the acute dialysis section. One of their four children is a cop in LA and another a nurse. The youngest is 18 years old, she said.

The picket lines were part of the Jan. 31 strike staged against Kaiser facilities throughout California. Both ladies said that the protest action was for quality patient care, about the pension system and healthcare benefits that are being threatened and for a reasonable increase on wages. Just a little increase to be in step with inflation, the high cost of living, Irma added.

They said that Kaiser is intending to cut staffing despite skyrocketing profits. There is a need for the hospital to stick to the state-mandated nurse-patient ratio to protect the interests of both the patient and the nursing professional. A nurse burdened with too many obligations because of a depleted staff is prone to commit mistakes. That situation would also put their licenses at risk, they said.

Kaiser is very tricky in this regard, Irma alleged. They probably would put enough personnel for show in the morning but by afternoon, only a few would be around to take care of the patients. Then there are the needs by some patients for the services of psychiatrists, psychologists and other specialists. The appointment time is too long thus putting the patients’ well-being in jeopardy.

The two ladies said that negotiations has been ongoing for two years now but that Kaiser is dragging its feet. Some minor agreements had been reached and Kaiser, they said, claims that they’re already doing what the nurses want. But these things should be in writing so that someone would be accountable for violations, if any, of the contract.

There is no recession at Kaiser because the hospital is making record profits, the ladies alleged. According to reports the hospital earned $5.7 billion in profits since the beginning of 2009 and Kaiser executives are being paid like Fortune 500 CEOs (Kaiser CEO George Halvorson reportedly enjoyed nearly $9 million in total compensation in 2010). Instead, Kaiser is trying to force cuts on workers’ healthcare and retirement benefits, the report said.

Meanwhile, it was reported that Kaiser hospitals and medical offices remained open during the strike, though some appointments and elective procedures were rescheduled. Kaiser officials were reported saying that NUHW, the employees’ union, hasn’t responded to their wage and benefit proposals. Additionally, they claimed that about two-thirds of its nurses showed up for work as scheduled.

It’s website states that Kaiser Permanente is America’s leading nonprofit integrated health plan serving more than 8.8 million people from 35 hospitals and 431 medical office buildings in nine states and the District of Columbia. It has approximately 180,600 employees and physicians. It goes on to say that in a single year they may schedule more than 36 million outpatient visits, deliver 91,000 babies, perform 547,000 surgeries, and fill some 129 million prescriptions.

NUHW claimed that 4,000 people representing Kaiser’s mental health and optical employees throughout California participated in the 24-hour strike, their fourth walkout since contract negotiations started in 2010. The union also said that nurses-members of the California Nurses Association would stage a strike in solidarity.

KaiserUnited, a caregivers group, issued a press release about alleged gross and systemic deficiencies in mental health services at Kaiser Permanente hospitals and clinics throughout California attributed to administrators preoccupied with cost savings. Among others, it claimed that 90% of surveyed clinicians report that there is insufficient staffing at their clinic; patients are frequently forced to wait four weeks or longer for return appointments; Kaiser routinely compels clinicians to “speed up” initial patient evaluations; Kaiser often funnels patients into group therapy even when their diagnoses call for individual therapy; and that Kaiser falsifies patient scheduling records to conceal appointment delays from state regulators.

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