Dozens of dialysis caregivers wrapped up a two-day strike Tuesday in Elk Grove and Folsom, condemning industry behemoths Fresenius Kidney Care and Satellite Healthcare for using intimidation tactics to scuttle labor contract negotiations.
“Ever since we unionized, they’ve been treating us really bad,” said Tara Bzdok, a dietitian at the Satellite clinic in Folsom. Bzok said issues include inappropriate staffing levels and raises at other clinics. “That’s why we’re ready to fight for our rights. We know we have the right to unionize.”
In total, more than 500 workers around California participated in the strike organized by union local Service Employees International-United Healthcare Workers. SEIU-UHW has said that dialysis workers around the state have sought help with organizing their clinics over the last seven years.
The union invested deeply in organizing workers but also took on the dialysis giants in the court of public opinion, asking California voters in one ballot initiative after another to force reforms upon Fresenius, Satellite and others.
While its propositions were unsuccessful, the union began hit pay dirt with its organizing effort. In December 2022, Fresenius dialysis clinics in Brentwood, Antioch, and Camarillo voted to join the union. Since then, SEIU-UHW has added workers at 18 other sites. Thirty have been added at the Fresenius clinic at 8139 Elk Grove Blvd. in Elk Grove, and nine at the Satellite facility, 210 Blue Ravine Road, in Folsom.
Finally, SEIU was able to face the dialysis companies across the bargaining table last April, and its members have already voted to authorize a strike over unfair labor practices. The union also said it has filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Fresenius and Satellite attempted to coerce and intimidate employees into dropping their effort to bargain collectively.
Both Fresenius and Satellite told The Bee that their clinics remained open on Monday and Tuesday and continued to care for patients. They denied SEIU-UHW claims that they are trying to torpedo contract negotiations.
“While we dispute the union’s claims about Satellite, we respect the rights of these striking employees to engage in lawful union activities and are in discussions with the union,” the company’s leaders said in a prepared statement.
Fresenius leaders said they were committed to reaching an agreement that supports employees and the company’s mission of patient service.
“Negotiations with SEIU-UHW are just at the beginning stages — to date, we have had two ‘framework’ sessions that are designed to reach alignment on the various topics that would become standard language across multiple clinic contracts/locations,” company leaders said. “Given this, we are surprised and disappointed that the union is already calling for a strike.”
Fresenius described the SEIU-UHW allegations as “unequivocally inaccurate and false,” adding that the NLRB already dismissed two of the union’s unfair labor practice charges.
Attempts over the years to improve working conditions
SEIU-UHW leaders have said that dialysis workers around the state have sought assistance with forming unions because they wanted to improve their working conditions and strengthen worker and patient protections.
“I have too many patients to keep up with, and we need safer staffing across the board for all of our professions to provide better patient care that’s safe, so that they have enough attention,” Bzdok said. “If someone codes (goes into cardiopulmonary arrest) on the floor, everybody runs to that person. There’s no one looking after the rest of the patients. It’s really in crisis mode.”
In addition to dietitians, the union said its member roster at the dialysis sites also includes registered nurses, patient care technicians, certified clinical hemodialysis technicians, administrative assistants and unit secretaries. Some work out of storefront sites and others at hospitals.
Bzdok said she has worked for both Fresenius and Satellite since she started working with dialysis patients in 2011, and she feels that both companies put the financial interests of shareholders and management ahead of patients when it comes to weighing expenditures.
Fresenius, for example, reported $1.3 billion in profits in 2021 and gave its chief executive officer nearly $6 million in compensation, SEIU-UHW leaders have pointed out.
“They’re all trying to make money off of our patients and keep it for the corporate people and not give (staff) appropriate raises and appropriate staffing limits,” she said. “We’re uniting as dialysis workers across two different companies.”
In 2018, SEIU-UHW spent heavily in support of a California ballot initiative, Proposition 8, to limit the profit that dialysis companies can make to 15%, but the companies sunk more than $100 million into opposing the measure. It failed to pass by a margin of roughly 60% to 40%. The union also tried unsuccessfully for several years to pass voter initiatives that would have required licensed medical professionals to be onsite at the dialysis clinics.