Kaiser mental health workers vote on contract

Kaiser Permanente workers picketing during a five-day strike in December. (Photo: National Union of Healthcare Workers) United Healthcare Workers

After months of bargaining, thousands of mental health clinicians across California are voting today on the latest contract offer from Kaiser Permanente. Simultaneously in San Francisco, dozens of Kaiser Permanente mental health clinicians are going on strike today.

Their last statewide strike was in December 2018 and lasted five days. Voting on the latest contract could end as early as today.

Nearly 4,000 psychologists, therapists, social workers, and psychiatric nurses at Kaiser Permanente, represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), have cited a “growing child mental health crisis” at the Kaiser facilities as their main concerns during contract negotiations.

Mental health clinicians say they are consistently overworked and even have to book patients over their lunch break.

They have urged Kaiser to hire more personnel. Kaiser, based in Oakland, serves about 12.2 million health plan members in California.

Currently, there is just one mental health clinician for every 3,000 Kaiser members. According to NUHW, first-time patients have to wait at least four weeks for their first one-on-one visit with a Kaiser mental health therapist.

Group therapy sessions have gotten so crowded that children and parents often have to sit on the floor during the session. The mental health clinicians claim that they are consistently overworked and even have to book over their lunch break in order to meet as many patients as possible, with no cap on the number of patients they can see.

With around 90% of their time spent on meeting with patients, clinicians contend that they often do not have time for indirect care,  such as  meetings, writing treatment notes and following up with patients. Those are necessary tasks, they say, to ensure they are providing the best care possible.

The workers’s primary ask for Kaiser? Hire more staff.

According to NUHW, there are shortages across Kaiser facilities for mental health clinicians but there have been no new job openings posted online.

Kaiser says it has already hired new staff over the past year.

In a written statement, Kaiser said that “meeting the increased demand for mental health services is a national challenge that faces all health care providers,” and expressed disappointment in “the decision of NUHW leadership to urge the rejection of the contract proposal and effectively postpone the improvements we agree need to be made immediately.”

Kaiser also described as “mischaracterizations” some statements from NUHW, noting that Kaiser had hired over 500 new therapists and expanded their mental health treatment locations.

However, NUHW said that while some mental clinicians had been hired, Kaiser has also increased their number of patients, leaving a large gap between the number of patients that need care and the number of workers that can serve them.

NUHW has also shamed Kaiser’s agreement to pay the Golden State Warriors up to $295 million for naming rights to the area surrounding the new basketball arena. This deal has been compared to the $144 million it would take to increase staffing by 30%. NUHW has used this as proof of Kaiser’s misplaced priorities and “hands-off” approach to healthcare.

In June, the Kaiser clinicians called off a statewide strike, deciding instead to put the latest contract offer up for a vote. Although this contract is a step forward from the original contract, NUHW maintains that there are still a lot of room for improvement in the areas of patient care and equity with other Kaiser employees.

With cities such as Berkeley and San Francisco formally supporting their requests, these mental health clinicians are ready to continue bargaining if their members vote down the current offer.

Editor’s Note: Sarah Abdeshahian is a Capitol Weekly intern from the University of California, Berkeley.

Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: