Nearly 2,000 mental health workers join other Kaiser union members in authorizing strike

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Kaiser Permanente psychologists, therapists and social workers in Northern California, who are represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, have joined other unionized workers at the health system in authorizing a strike, according to statements from the union and Kaiser.

The strike authorization vote by nearly 2,000 mental healthcare workers in the Bay Area, Central Valley and Sacramento took place mostly the week of Oct. 17 and ended late Oct. 25. It does not mean a strike will take place but gives the National Union of Healthcare Workers the option of calling one. Union representatives would have to submit a formal strike notice to Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers said its members authorized a strike because Kaiser has rejected union proposals to boost staffing, recruit more bilingual and minority therapists and ease unsustainable caseloads that are causing increased turnover at Kaiser clinics. The union also referenced legislation signed earlier this year by California Gov. Gavin Newsom that requires health plans and insurers to provide patients with timely follow-up care for mental health issues and substance use disorders. Union representatives contend Kaiser will need to hire many more clinicians to comply with the new law, which takes effect July 1.

Additionally, the union cited a survey of Kaiser mental health clinicians released earlier this year, which found 80 percent of respondents reported that their clinics don't have adequate staffing to provide appropriate and timely care.

"We've been at the forefront in exposing Kaiser's greed in underfunding mental healthcare and forcing patients to wait months between therapy appointments," Mickey Fitzpatrick, a Kaiser psychologist, said in a news release. "Now, we have the opportunity to stand together with other unions and show that Kaiser's greed is harming patients across California."

Kaiser Senior Vice President of Human Resources Arlene Peasnall, in a statement shared with Becker's Oct. 28, noted a national shortage of mental health clinicians that was challenging even before the pandemic.

"Over the past year and a half, the demand for care has increased everywhere. We have been taking action to address the shortage of caregivers and to ensure care is available to our members. Over the past five years we have added hundreds of new mental health clinicians to our workforce; we currently have more than 300 open positions," said Ms. Peasnall. "We've worked hard to expand the number of therapists in California and are investing $30 million to build a pipeline to educate and train new mental health professionals across the state. We have significantly expanded our ability to provide virtual care to patients who want it, increasing convenience and access, even though NUHW initially objected to this effort. We also continue to scale up our collaborative care programs that have proven to effectively treat patients with anxiety and depression diagnoses."

Regarding claims about long wait times for mental healthcare, she said Kaiser "offers timely access to initial and return appointments that meets all state standards and is above the average of other California providers." But she added that work around this issue is ongoing.

"We know that every appointment is important and matters to each patient, every person's needs are unique and every Kaiser Permanente member who needs care deserves timely access to that care," said Ms. Peasnall.

She said the crux of the issues in bargaining is that healthcare is increasingly unaffordable, and escalating wages are half of Kaiser's costs. She said Kaiser cannot continue to allow costs to exceed what its members can afford.

National Union of Healthcare Workers-represented mental healthcare workers in Northern California have been without a contract since Oct. 1. No strike date has been set as future contract talks are scheduled in Northern California.  

The strike authorization vote by members of the National Union of Healthcare workers in Northern California comes as Kaiser is negotiating a national contract with the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, along with other unions in the Alliance of Health Care Unions. The alliance covers more than 50,000 Kaiser workers nationwide.

Amid negotiations, a staffing shortage and a proposed two-tiered wage system that would pay starting employees less than their more experienced colleagues also pushed tens of thousands of Kaiser employees, primarily in Southern California, to authorize a strike earlier in October. The vote covered 21,000 workers represented by the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals and 7,000 members of United Steelworkers. Another nearly 2,000 Kaiser workers in Hawaii, represented by UNITE HERE Local 5, authorized a strike Oct. 20.

Additionally, on Oct. 29, the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals is expected to release results from a strike authorization vote by members of its Northern California and Hawaii units, which comprise about 1,500 Kaiser pharmacists, physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists.

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