Thousands of Kaiser Permanente mental health care employees are entering their third week of an open-ended statewide strike, asking for better working conditions and shorter wait times for patients seeking care.
More than 2,000 therapists, psychologists, counselors and social workers being represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) have participated in the strike at daily picketing rallies outside of Kaiser Permanente locations and government buildings across the state.
Ken Rogers is a psychologist for Kaiser in Elk Grove. He’s been on the picket lines in the Sacramento area for the last three weeks, and has been an employee of the organization for 18 years.
“Today was an exceptionally good day,” Rogers said of the attendance at a picket line at the Kaiser Medical Center on Morse Avenue in the Arden area. “We’re all kind of nervous in expectation of what happens next, but there’s a lot of good support here.”
Kaiser and NUHW have been negotiating a contract for Northern California mental health clinicians since September 2021, when their last contract expired. Clinicians have agreed to a wage offer from Kaiser, but the two groups are divided on working conditions.
Union representatives say clinicians are striking over high workloads, which in turn is creating what they call record turnover. They also say that wait times for patients often violate recently-enacted state law, which stipulates that requests for mental health care are filled within 10 business days, unless a clinician says otherwise.
Kaiser management, however, says that the strike is over the amount of time clinicians spend doing administrative tasks.
“It is important to know that despite its public claims, NUHW’s primary demand is for union members to spend less time seeing patients,” Kaiser Permanente representatives said in a prepared statement. “Our patients cannot afford a proposal that significantly reduces the time available to care for them and their mental health needs.”
Rogers said that the lack of time given by Kaiser to complete these administrative tasks is contributing to high workloads for clinicians. Duties that fall into this category include updating charts and communicating with patients via phone and email.
“It’s just as important as seeing patients face-to-face,” Rogers said.
Last week, the California Department of Managed Healthcare announced it launched an investigation into Kaiser’s response to patient requests for mental health treatment.
The department also said it plans to monitor care for Kaiser patients seeking mental health services during the strike.
“Health plans must continue to comply with the law during a labor strike, including meeting timely access standards and providing appropriate mental health and substance use disorder care to enrollees,” the department said in a prepared statement.
Kaiser Permanente representatives say they were “very close” to an agreement with union management the week of Aug. 8 — a week before the strike began — but ultimately the two groups could not come to a decision. They last met to negotiate on Aug. 13.
Kaiser Permanente says they are actively working to meet members’ mental health needs, and state requirements, “using every resource available.”
Part of that effort includes hiring temporary employees from outside the organization to keep up with the many requests for mental health services while their employees are on strike.
“As of today, about 40% of our dedicated clinicians are caring for members instead of striking, with more returning each day,” Kaiser Permanente representatives said. “We are on our way to reaching agreements with hundreds of community-based mental health providers to open their schedules — for at least two months — to be able to treat more of our patients.”
On Monday, more than 50 Kaiser mental health employees working in Hawaii launched their second strike of the year, joining Northern California clinicians in protesting staffing shortages and high turnover rates.
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.