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Kaiser Mental Health Workers Strike for Third Day in Fight for Increased Staffing and Wages

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A line of people in red shirts march down a street, carrying signs at a picket line that say 'NUHW on strike.'
Kaiser mental health care workers hold signs on the picket line outside one of the health care giant's facilities in Oakland on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022, the second day of an open-ended strike. Those participating said a staffing shortage and unfair wages have led to 'dangerous' wait times for people seeking treatment. (Lesley McClurg/KQED)

Thousands of mental health care workers maintained picket lines Wednesday in front of Kaiser Permanente facilities in the Bay Area and Central Valley, the third day of an open-ended strike to demand the health care giant increase mental health staffing and wages.

"This strike is a long time coming," said state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, among a growing number of state legislative leaders backing the workers. "There have been major issues at Kaiser in terms of providing people with timely access or any access to mental health and addiction treatment and the workers have been advocating for years to have more staffing and compliance with the law and that hasn’t happened."

Jason Lechner, a therapist focused on addiction services for youth, was among a throng of protesters outside a Kaiser Oakland facility on Tuesday, where workers chanted, "What do we want? Patient care. When do we want it? Now!"

Lechner said Kaiser doesn't offer him enough time to carry out essential tasks like answering phone calls and emails, or referring patients to other experts, forcing him and his colleagues to regularly work extra hours in order to complete crucial administrative tasks.

“If I need to communicate with your primary care physician about what substances you're abusing, where's my time to do that?” he said.

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The National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents Kaiser psychologists, therapists, social workers and chemical dependency counselors in Northern California, is in the thick of negotiating a new contract with Kaiser, and demanding the company hire more mental health workers to ease the burden placed on current staff. The union said negotiations with management this weekend ended without resolution, with Kaiser rejecting the union's "proposals to increase staffing and end dangerously long waits for mental health therapy appointments."

Nicole Riddle, a labor and delivery nurse, said she has experienced the consequences of staffing shortages, not only as a health care worker, but also as a Kaiser member who has tried to access mental health services for herself.

"I've had my own experiences, both trying to advocate for myself throughout really traumatic birth experiences, postpartum depression, and then for my own child," she said. "And I feel like Kaiser kind of banks on people being burnt out enough to not keep escalating and advocating for themselves. And then those who are privileged enough to do so pay out of pocket."

"We deserve a better situation," she added.

In a statement issued Sunday, after negotiations stalled, Deb Catsavas, Kaiser's regional senior vice president of human resources, said the Oakland-based company has "the deepest appreciation and gratitude for our mental health professionals and the extraordinary care they provide to our members." But, she noted, "there are not enough mental health care professionals to meet the increased demand for care," both locally and nationwide.

The company has hired "nearly 200 new clinicians since January 2021" and launched a $500,000 initiative to recruit new mental health practitioners, Catsavas added.

"Despite the union’s harmful tactics, we remain committed to bargaining in good faith to reach a fair and equitable agreement that is good for our therapists and our patients," she said.

In negotiations, the union accepted Kaiser's wage-increase offer, but held fast on its demand that nine hours per week — up from the current six hours — be allotted for administrative work. Kaiser, however, rejected that demand, arguing it would not leave adequate time to see patients. Its counteroffer, of an additional 1.2 hours for that work, was flatly rejected.

California law requires health care providers like Kaiser to offer patients timely care even during labor strikes, and state regulators say they are closely monitoring consumer complaints about the company's compliance. Kaiser has said it will prioritize urgent mental health situations, but may have to reschedule some ongoing appointments.

Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb, who joined Oakland staffers on the picket line on Tuesday, said mental health care has been undervalued for far too long.

"Mental health care is health care. And (it) needs to stop being seen as the stepchild of health care," Kalb said, pointing to the longstanding demand for services that has only further escalated since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. "Kaiser should be ashamed of themselves for not staffing up the mental health care clinicians that they need and not paying them a fair wage. It's inexcusable."

Kalb called for "unanimous support" for mental health workers, not just at Kaiser, but in all health care settings "to make sure that there are enough health care workers everywhere to meet the needs that people have."

KQED's Matthew Green contributed reporting.

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