Thousands of Kaiser therapists in Northern California to strike starting Monday over poor working conditions

Thousands of Kaiser Permanente mental health clinicians, all members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), will begin striking on Monday in Fresno, Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Jose. Clinicians taking part in the strike are citing what they describe as Kaiser’s failure to address the state’s surge in demand for treatment.

 

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Last winter, these Kaiser mental health clinicians went on strike in solidarity with Kaiser stationary engineers. 

Sarah Soroken, a therapist for Kaiser in the Bay Area, told State of Reform that significantly long wait times for patients to be seen by clinicians is a primary reason that 2,000 clinicians will form picket lines outside of several Kaiser facilities in Northern California.

“Our patients are not getting the care they need,” Soroken said. “They’re continuing to endure dangerously long waits for behavioral health treatment appointments, and many patients are getting worse. 

We’ve negotiated at the bargaining table, reached out to all levels of Kaiser leadership, filed grievances with state regulatory agencies, and held press events to pass mental health parity legislation, but our patients are still being denied the medically necessary care that they need. We understand that striking is really a last resort but at this point, we’ve tried everything and the status quo is just unacceptable to continue to go on.”

Soroken said that in her service area, patients with moderate and severe symptoms of mental health conditions often wait more than 3 months even for their first individual therapy appointment, and as a result of these long wait times, patients’ symptoms often become more severe.

“I speak with patients each work day in crisis who really need more intensive and costly treatment because their conditions have worsened during long waits between individual psychotherapy appointments,” she said. “What can happen is patients with serious mental illnesses’ prognoses worsens each time they experience a relapse into an episode of active symptoms, and we see consequences like negative impacts to functioning at work or at home, severe emotional pain, even suicide attempts and homelessness when people aren’t given the care that they need.”

According to Soroken, the striking clinicians are hoping to urge Kaiser to invest more resources into staffing and addressing “dangerously” high workloads for current clinicians in order to improve turnover rates.

She added that while bargaining sessions with Kaiser leadership have been taking place for over a year, little progress has been made between the two parties.

“On our side, we’ve made so many different proposals to address the staffing, workload and retention problems,” she said. “Kaiser has rejected all of them and has not proposed anything other than to maintain the status quo when it comes to staffing, workload, and retention.”

Deb Catsavas, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Kaiser Permanente, provided State of Reform with this statement in response to the strikes.

“We understand that NUHW has announced plans to strike – sadly, a bargaining tactic this union has used every time it has bargained a new contract with Kaiser Permanente, over the past 12 years of its existence,” Catsavas said. “We are still in active bargaining and are committed to resolving the issues and reaching an agreement. 

It is especially disappointing that NUHW is asking our dedicated and compassionate employees to walk away from their patients when they need us most. In addition, it is unconscionable that NUHW has been reaching out to our external behavioral health vendors asking for their support. We have nothing but appreciation and gratitude for our mental health professionals and the extraordinary care they provide to our members. We take seriously any threat by NUHW to disrupt care.”

Catsavas also said that Kaiser plans to continue bargaining sessions with the NUHW employees in order to reach a “fair and equitable agreement that is good for our therapists and our patients.”

“It is perplexing that NUHW leaders have chosen to strike when we were close to an agreement,” Catsavas said. “Together, we have made significant progress in bargaining, including reaching several tentative agreements, and holding productive discussions regarding remaining issues. In our last bargaining session, we were about 1% apart in our respective wage proposals, and we came to a recent bargaining session with hopes to bargain vigorously and bring negotiations to a conclusion. Unfortunately, union leadership delivered a fully new economic proposal from NUHW that avoids reaching agreement and pushes us further apart.”

Catsavas also emphasized that while the strike ensues, urgent and emergency care will be provided by non-striking clinicians and Kaiser’s external provider network, while some non-urgent appointments may need to be rescheduled.

“We believe the bargaining table is the best place to resolve our differences; nevertheless, we regularly prepare comprehensive contingency plans and remain prepared to ensure our members will receive the care they need, should NUHW move forward with this strike.”

Soroken said the strike is open-ended, and that NUHW employees will continue to strike until Kaiser “does the right thing.”