Mental health workers at Kaiser Permanente locations throughout Northern California walked off the job Monday after a year of contract negotiations.
The more than 2,000 therapists, chemical dependency counselors and social workers represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers have been working without a contract since September. Bargaining started in July 2021.
No further bargaining sessions are scheduled, according to Kaiser Permanente spokesperson Steve Shivinsky. “Kaiser Permanente has made it known we are prepared to meet with the union at any time and will continue bargaining in good faith. Our goal is to reach a fair and equitable agreement and bring this strike and our negotiations to a conclusion,” he wrote in an email.
Union members began the open-ended strike with picket lines in Fresno, Sacramento, San Francisco and San Jose. They allege that Oakland-based Kaiser Permanente is in violation of state parity laws that guarantee patients can see mental healthcare providers in a timely manner and want the not-for-profit integrated health system to hire more staff. Under California laws, patients must receive initial intake appointments within 10 days and follow-up appointments 10 days after that.
“We can’t in good conscience agree to a proposal that doesn’t fundamentally change Kaiser’s approach to mental healthcare,” Chelsea Wise-Diangson, a therapist in Santa Clara, said in a news release. “Our patients’ health and our professional ethics are at stake. We need Kaiser to provide us with sufficient staffing and resources to help our patients get better, just like it does for its doctors providing medical care.”
The health system has hired hundreds of new mental healthcare workers, including nearly 200 since January 2021, and launched a $500,000 recruiting initiative to attract employees, Deb Catsavas, senior vice president of human resources at Kaiser Permanente Northern California, said in a statement. “Across the country, there are not enough mental healthcare professionals to meet the increased demand for care,” she said. “Despite all that we are doing we, like others, are challenged to meet the demand and know more must be done.”
During the work stoppage, some non-striking mental health workers will see patients, as will other community providers, Catsavas said. Some non-urgent appointments may be rescheduled, she said.
The California Department of Managed Health Care is conducting “a non-routine survey” of Kaiser Permanente’s mental healthcare services in response to an uptick in consumer complaints, Director Mary Watanabe testified to the California state Senate last week.