By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Some 2,500 nurses and other medical workers walked off the job at Kaiser Permanente facilities in southern California on Wednesday in a three-day planned strike protesting benefit cuts sought by the nonprofit healthcare giant.
The striking employees are represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which began negotiations about 18 months ago on its first labor contract with Kaiser facilities in Los Angeles, San Diego and other locations.
The bulk of the picketing took place outside Kaiser's Los Angeles Medical Center in Hollywood, the organization's leading in-patient hospital in the region, where over 1,100 registered nurses went on strike.
Adding to their ranks were more than 1,300 striking healthcare employees at other Kaiser facilities, including mental health therapists, audiologists, dietitians, social workers and speech pathologists.
On Thursday, about 17,000 Kaiser nurses represented by the California Nurses Association in northern California plan to stage a 24-hour sympathy strike as southern California workers walk picket lines for a second day, union officials said.
An additional 1,500 therapists, social workers and optical workers represented by the NUHW in northern California will walk off the job for one day as well.
The Los Angeles nurses are to remain on strike through Friday, while the remaining protesters return to work that day, said union spokesman Leighton Woodhouse.
He said the main stumbling blocks to a settlement have been Kaiser's proposals to cut union members' pension and healthcare benefits at a time when Kaiser is posting record earnings. The union also is pressing Kaiser to increase staffing levels.
NUHW Vice President John Borsos said Kaiser has earned $5.7 billion over the past two years, and $1.6 billion during the past six months alone, through increased insurance premiums.
"The issue is whether caregivers have a real voice in how the hospital gets staffed," Borsos told Reuters.
Mark Costa, executive director of Kaiser's medical center in Los Angeles, declined to discuss financial performance. But he said the union has failed to respond with a counteroffer to salary and pension proposals the company presented in April.
He called Kaiser's contract proposals "very competitive in our market" and said the company "meets and exceeds safe standards as they relate to nurse staffing ratios."
The union gave two weeks advance notice of its strike plans, and Kaiser has temporarily filled the positions of striking nurses with managers from across its hospital system and with nurses from outside registries.
Costa said the hospital, currently caring for about 275 patients, and other facilities were all running as normal, and "patient care is not being compromised by the action."
(Editing by Peter Bohan)