More than 75,000 health care workers at Kaiser Permanente — the country’s largest health care nonprofit organization — walked out of hospitals and medical offices across several states on Wednesday after labor negotiators failed to resolve a dispute over fair wages and staffing levels.
It is the largest health care worker strike in U.S. history.
Frustrations about low wages and staffing shortages among health care workers began long before COVID exacerbated the problem — and workers who remain are feeling burnt out and unable to provide adequate care to patients. “If they see something on your mammogram and send you for a sonogram, you’re going to be waiting weeks for a scan,” Ethan Ruskin, a health educator at Kaiser Permanente in California, told the New York Times. Sonographers are expected to see twice as many patients as they should, he said.
Europe’s healthcare systems are also fractured due to staff shortages and burnout. Earlier this year, thousands of nurses and ambulance service staff walked out of the job in what was described to be the largest ever national strike by British health workers. European health care facilities reportedly face a total shortage of one million workers and are comprised of an aging workforce — what the World Health Organization describes as a “ticking time bomb”.
The Kaiser strike is taking place amid record labor activity in the U.S. since 2000 — spurred by inflation, a tight labor market, and the rising popularity of unions. More than 445,000 workers across all sectors have walked off the job this year, the Washington Post reports, including 25,000 autoworkers and 160,000 actors. The walk-outs have largely been deemed successful, with the Hollywood writers strike ending with a tentative agreement with studios to include “meaningful gains and protections.” And President Joe Biden made history as the first sitting U.S. president in modern times to visit a picket line, when he joined striking autoworkers in Michigan and called for raises and benefits.
Strike action in health care has long been debated in bioethics, yet there is little consensus on whether it is justified, two University of Greenwich researchers argue in a 2022 paper. Existing literature on health care strikes often focus on the assumption of workers’ obligations to their patients or society, while some may argue that such obligations are not absolute. The authors call for more research into exploring such assumptions and addressing how actions can be conducted while minimizing patient risk, given that the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with decades of neglect in health care systems means that health care strikes will remain increasingly common.