Kaiser Permanente Colorado nurse union suit alleges understaffing

A union representing about 2,000 employees of Kaiser Permanente Colorado filed a lawsuit Thursday alleging that a lack of staffing was delaying care for patients.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, which represents nurses, pharmacists and other providers who aren’t physicians, alleged “chronic staffing shortages” that put patients at risk. It alleged nurses at an infusion center were overworked and couldn’t adequately monitor chemotherapy patients, and that patients waited days for a response when they called with questions about potentially dangerous symptoms like chest pain.

The complaint alleges patients’ phone calls can sometimes go unanswered for days or weeks. Nurses were allegedly told the organization’s goal was to respond to all messages within three months, prioritizing those that were more urgent.

Registered nurses “reported exasperation at this ‘three month’ goal because such a lengthy delay in responding to patients poses an extreme risk to patient safety,” the complaint said.

Colorado law doesn’t require minimum staffing numbers for outpatient facilities, so the suit relies on a provision in the union’s agreement with Kaiser Permanente, which requires “sufficient staffing” to provide safe care for patients and reasonable workloads. Since the contract doesn’t include specific numbers, whether the current staffing is sufficient would be up to a judge, if the lawsuit were to go to trial.

The issue is separate from strikes at Kaiser Permanente facilities in California and Oregon, where unions’ local contracts have expired, said Becky Sassaman, a lead registered nurse for Local 7 who works at a Kaiser Permanente urgent care facility.

Since the early 2000s, staffing issues generally were resolved by bringing grievances to a committee and working through them, Sassaman said. That changed in 2019, when Kaiser Permanente cut about 10% of unionized staff, she said.

“There’s pressure to work harder and faster with less,” she said. “It feels like profits before patients.”

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