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Kaiser Mental Health Workers in Northern California Begin 'Open-Ended' Strike Over Staffing Shortages

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Workers in red shirts holding signs that say 'NUHW on strike' march on a picket line in front of a large building, with one person talking into a bull horn
Kaiser Permanente mental health workers march on the picket line on Aug. 15, 2022, outside the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center on Geary Blvd. in San Francisco. Monday is the first day of what union organizers are calling an 'open-ended strike,' in a push for the health care giant to hire more mental health staff. (Lesley McClurg/KQED)

Some 2,000 Kaiser Permanente psychologists, therapists, social workers and chemical dependency counselors in Northern California began what they called an "open-ended" strike Monday over staffing shortages that their union said have overwhelmed workers and resulted in patients waiting months to get help. Workers formed picket lines at Kaiser facilities in San Francisco, San José, Fresno and Sacramento.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents the workers, is negotiating a new contract with the Oakland-based health care giant, and demanding the company hire more mental health workers to ease the burden placed on current staff. The union said negotiations with management ended without resolution this weekend.

Kaiser rejected "union proposals to increase staffing and end dangerously long waits for mental health therapy appointments," organizers said in a statement Sunday.

"We've been telling Kaiser executives since Day One that this isn't about money," said Jennifer Browning, a Kaiser social worker in Roseville, and part of the union's bargaining team, noting that organizers did accept Kaiser's wage-increase offer. "It's about our professional integrity and our ability to provide care that will help patients get better."

At a picket line outside a Kaiser center in San Francisco on Monday, employees held signs that read "patients over profits."

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Jeffery Chen-Harding, a clinical social worker with Kaiser who was picketing there, said his patients are having to wait longer and longer for care.

"We have people waiting six to eight weeks to get an appointment," he said.

Petaluma clinical psychologist Alexis Petrakis, also picketing in San Francisco, echoed Chen-Harding's comments about the wait times, describing her caseloads as unrelenting.

"I meet somebody new, they tell me their story, and maybe they even are honest about trauma that they've experienced," she said. "I try to find a 30-minute phone call just to check in, but it's not the care that I know that they deserve.”

Deb Catsavas, Kaiser's senior vice president of human resources in Northern California, said in a statement Sunday that the company has hired hundreds of new mental health workers, including 200 since January 2021. She also pointed out that the shortage in mental health care professionals is happening nationwide.

There are two main issues, Catsavas noted. "One is wage increases and the other is the union's demand to increase the time therapists spend on tasks other than seeing patients," she said. "The primary role — and essential need — for our therapists is to provide mental health care and treat our patients."

The union is demanding that nine hours per week be allotted for administrative work, which would leave only 31 hours to see patients, the company said. It said it proposed increasing the time for administrative tasks from 6 to 7.2 hours, leaving 32.8 hours to see patients.

"Our patients cannot afford a proposal that significantly reduces the time available to care for them and their mental health needs," Catsavas said. "In recognition of our therapists' concerns and priorities, we have proposed an increase in the scheduled time allocated to administrative tasks, but the union is demanding still more administrative time."

But Chen-Harding argued that the time in question is actually important work related to patient care.

"What they’re calling administrative time, it’s actually time when I am calling people who are in a crisis. It may be time when I am learning about the patient that I’m about to meet with," he said.

A shortage in mental health clinicians has been a sticking point between the company and the union for years. In December 2019, Kaiser mental health care workers held a five-day strike over staffing shortages.

Catsavas said Kaiser recently reached an agreement with the same union in Southern California, representing about 1,900 mental health professionals.

Kaiser said some clinicians will remain on the job during the strike. It also has expanded its network of "high-quality community providers and will continue to prioritize urgent and emergency care" through the duration of the strike, it said, adding that some nonurgent appointments may need to be rescheduled and patients whose appointments may be affected will be contacted directly prior to the date of the appointment.

The union said state law requires Kaiser to pay for out-of-network services if it's unable to provide urgent mental health appointments within 48 hours, and nonurgent appointments within 10 business days, unless the therapist determines that a longer wait would not be detrimental to the patient's health.

No date has been set for further negotiations.

This story includes reporting from The Associated Press, Bay City News and KQED's Lesley McClurg.

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