County Council urges Maui Health to resolve labor dispute, vows to seek help at state level
After emotional testimony from Maui Health employees about low wages and long hours, some council members Friday said the state should re-evaluate whether Kaiser Permanente is equipped to continue managing Maui County hospitals.
Nearly 500 staff left their posts Feb. 22 at Maui Memorial Medical Center, Kula Hospital and Lānaʻi Community Hospital to strike over fair wages and reasonable working conditions. The community hospitals are affiliated with Kaiser.
“When Kaiser took over management of our hospitals, they promised the state that they would provide quality patient care — however their actions to under pay medical staff is contrary to that promise,” Council member Shane Sinenci said. “The state should reassess, re-evaluate on the contract with Kaiser in order to better serve our kūpuna, our patients and our residents.”
Others council members, including Tamara Paltin, Yuki Lei Sugimura and Tasha Kama, said they need to meet with state legislators in order to urge reform for Maui hospitals.
“It’s a shame it’s come to this point on Maui,” Paltin said. “It’s mostly in the hands of the state to regulate the hospital. We should meet up with the state reps and legislators. Enough is enough already with what they got going on over there.”
Maui County Council in a 9-0 vote Friday adopted a resolution to support Maui County health care workers and urge Maui Health System to resolve an ongoing labor dispute. Introduced by Council member Gabe Johnson, the resolution doesn’t have the force and effect of law, but it does send a message to state and county officials, along with hospital leaders.
“Stay strong, brothers and sisters,” Johnson said before the vote. “The car doesn’t go without the gasoline and the workers are the gasoline in that economic pay engine. No gas, no go. No workers, no go. Please stand strong on the picket line.”
Despite Hawaiʻi having the highest cost of living in the nation, some Maui Health workers testified Friday that they were making more money for the same job in California.
A recent report by ConsumerAffairs said that Hawaiʻi has the highest cost of living in the U.S. based on housing and rental costs; utility, food and gas prices; and tax rates.
Allen Moreno, Maui Health ICU nurseʻs aide, testified that he was making $31.67 for Kaiser in Santa Clara. When he moved to Maui Health in 2018, he was hired at $16.32. Now, he doesn’t make more than $21 an hour, and many of the workers on strike won’t get out of the range of $20-something.
“What they’re asking us to take is keeping us at poverty level,” he said.
Heidi Ruf, a Maui Health anesthesia tech, moved from California to Maui in 2020. At her old job as an anesthesia tech, she got paid $30 an hour. She started at Maui Health at $19 per hour and is now at $23.80 an hour.
Thomas Pratt, a Maui Health nurse, said he worked at Stanford in California and was getting paid $160,000 a year. He chose a job on Maui for under $80,000 because of the quality of the nurses’ aides. But things changed when Kaiser took over, he said.
“All of a sudden, the help left,” he said. “They didn’t pay them.”
Pratt said the crisis at Maui’s only acute-care hospital is being ignored.
“We are running over capacity all the time, so if you end up in the hospital, and you’re sitting there waiting and waiting and waiting — days in the emergency room, waiting for a bed — it’s because nobody’s doing anything about this,” he said.
Represented by United Public Workers, AFSCME Local 646, AFL-CIO, the Maui Health employees on strike include nurses aides, respiratory therapists, emergency room technicians, maintenance workers, transporters, housekeepers, cooks, dietitians and others.
Maui Health on Friday evening said UPW bargaining teams and Maui Health representatives met earlier in the day for negotiations facilitated by a federal mediator.
“Today’s session was arranged by Maui Health as an additional negotiations date after the March 6 session, to ensure these important discussions could continue with minimal delay,” a Maui Health spokesperson said.
The next talks are slated March 14, and Maui Health said it is committed to bargaining in good faith and is hopeful an agreement will be reached soon.
In a Maui News advertisement, Maui Health’s new interim CEO Kerry Watson said Maui Health and the union have bargained over nine months, and tentative agreements were reached — only for union members to vote them down.
In the Last, Best and Final offer, which was promoted by union leaders but rejected by union members, enhancements included wage adjustments for every member across all union job categories, three additional increases over three years, the first being paid out within the first six months.
“It represented an average compound wage increase of 13.9% across all job classifications, with many receiving a larger wage increase,” Watson said in the ad. “Additionally, all UPW members would receive a bonus within 30 days of ratification, plus significant increases to evening and night shift differential pay.”
Although the tentative agreement was supported by union leaders, the agreement was voted down Feb. 21 and the strike started the next day.
Watson in the lengthly letter combats “false and misleading information” about the hospital that hurts people on all sides.
“We are doing everything we can to bring our UPW-represented team members back to work,” Watson said. “Please show your support for our healthcare workers that are caring for our loved ones on the frontline, as well as our brothers and sisters on the picket line. Regardless of union association, we are all connected, we are all family, and that is what makes this community so special.”