An estimated 4,000 Kaiser Permanente mental health workers launched a five-day, statewide strike Monday, Dec. 16 to protest understaffing, crushing caseloads and patient appointments that often aren’t available for months.
The psychologists, therapists, psychiatric nurses and other healthcare professionals have been working without a contract for more than a year.
Picket lines are in place at 10 Kaiser facilities. The National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents the employees, said the action could potentially shut down mental health services at more than 100 Kaiser clinics and medical facilities from San Diego to Sacramento.
“Anyone in need of urgent mental health or other care will receive the services they require,” the company said. “Where necessary, we will call members to reschedule some non-urgent appointments. We apologize for any inconvenience caused by this unnecessary strike.”
Kaiser psychologist Kenneth Rogers said the challenges workers face each day are getting worse.
“We don’t have enough time to provide proper patient care which includes the preparation and follow-up work that goes into every appointment,” he said. “Patients are being forced to endure even longer wait times for appointments, while Kaiser sits on billions of dollars, refusing to fix the problem.”
Kaiser has been fined millions of dollars and placed under state-ordered monitoring for repeatedly violating California mental health parity laws, NUHW said, yet its clinics remain “severely understaffed.”
Patients are routinely forced to wait six-to-eight weeks and sometimes longer for therapy appointments, the union said, and clinicians are so overbooked they have to work after hours trying to help patients who can’t wait for care.
In a survey conducted earlier this year, 77% of Kaiser clinicians said they must schedule patient return appointments further into the future than is clinically appropriate.
Proposed compromise rejected
Annie Russell, chief operating officer for Kaiser’s Southern California Permanente Medical Group, said the two sides have been working with an external, neutral mediator in an effort to reach a labor agreement.
“The mediator recently delivered a proposed compromise to both sides that we are seriously considering; however, the union has rejected it and announced plans to strike instead of working through the mediated process,” Russell said in a statement.
Kaiser said it hired more than 400 new mental health clinicians throughout California this year in addition to building dozens of new treatment facilities and investing millions of dollars to help more people enter the mental health industry.
For Southern California employees, the mediator’s recommendation includes therapist wage increases of 3% the first year, 2.75% the second and third year, and 2.5% the fourth year with lump-sum payments in years two through four and a retroactive bonus of $2,600.
Russell said this is NUHW’s sixth noticed strike within a single year.
“We believe that NUHW’s repeated call for short strikes is disruptive to patient access, operational care and service and is frankly irresponsible,” she said. “All it does is put our members in the middle of bargaining, which is not fair to them, especially during the holidays when rates of depression can spike and our patients are counting on their caregivers to be there.”