Kaiser workers plan MLK Day strike

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Psychologists, social workers and therapists employed at Kaiser Permanente's Oakland and Richmond, Calif., clinics plan to strike Jan. 17 after they say the health system backtracked on making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid holiday for all healthcare workers, including its mental health clinicians, according to the union that represents them.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents more than 4,000 Kaiser mental health clinicians in California and Hawaii, cited an email sent Dec. 1 by Michael Nava, PhD, Kaiser's director of East Bay Behavioral Health.

The email states in part: "Our management team communicated to our department that MLK was going to be a paid holiday for all mental health clinicians in Northern California] in 2022. In our excitement, we placed all NUHW provider schedules on hold. However, we failed to confirm if it was actually finalized. Only recently we learned that it is not. There are more negotiations and meetings that need to take place with the other coalition of unions and between [The Permanente Medical Group] and [Kaiser Foundation and Hospitals]. To our understanding this is a complex process occurring much beyond the local level."

The mental health clinicians were given the option of using available paid time off, paid administrative leave or education leave to take the day off.  

"It was Dr. King's persistent advocacy and determination that helped desegregate hospitals," Sabrina Chaumette, a social worker at Kaiser in Oakland, said in a news release. "For Kaiser to still refuse to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday in 2022 is disrespectful to our communities and dishonors the memory of Dr. King and his legacy."

Ixayanne Baez, a marriage and family therapist at Kaiser in Oakland, in the union statement accused Kaiser of using Martin Luther King Jr. Day "as a bureaucratic challenge rather than a moral imperative."

In a statement shared with Becker's, Kaiser said the health system has celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a day of service to others for nearly two decades, expanding it to a weeklong event this year.

"For some time, we have been working to standardize this observance across our enterprise, comprising eight states and the District of Columbia," Kaiser said. "We are pleased to share ... that Kaiser Permanente has made the commitment to adopt, starting in 2023, MLK Day as a scheduled, paid holiday across the organization."

The health system, however, acknowledged there was a miscommunication surrounding this year's Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance.

"Local management well intentionally but incorrectly provided the wrong information, which was later corrected," Kaiser said. "Our local leadership have apologized to employees who may have viewed the mistake as in any way conflicting with our deep commitment to equity, inclusion and diversity leadership."

Additionally, the health system expressed disappointment about the planned strike, saying the union "is seeking to misuse this isolated incident as a reason to disrupt mental healthcare as part of its bargaining strategy."

The National Union of Healthcare Workers plans to picket outside Kaiser's Oakland Medical Center beginning at 8 a.m. Jan. 17 and march with allies and elected officials to the health system's Oakland corporate headquarters for a midday rally.

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