Kaiser mental health workers in Sonoma County join strike to protest staffing shortages
Scores of Kaiser Permanente mental health workers went on strike Tuesday in Santa Rosa to protest what they say are perpetual staffing shortages that are causing major delays in treatment for patients and increasing burnout among therapists, psychologists, social workers and drug counselors.
The strike is part of a larger labor action that started Monday by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents some 2,000 mental health workers at numerous Kaiser facilities in Northern California. The union represents more than 100 workers in Sonoma County, union officials said.
The union is in contract negotiations with Kaiser, and several workers walking the picket line Tuesday said inadequate staffing is one of the key unresolved issues.
George Pulis, a marriage and family therapist who does psychiatric risk assessments in Kaiser’s emergency department, said workers are comfortable with wage and benefits being offered but want some assurance staffing will be significantly increased to reduce appointment wait times for patients, which can be as long as eight weeks.
“What we really haven’t made progress on is the staffing issue,” he said, adding that Kaiser’s Northern California facilities have seen a 17% reduction in mental health staff in the past year.
Deb Catsavas, Kaiser Northern California’s senior vice president of human resources, said in a statement that the union was using the strike as a bargaining tactic, a move that “pulls nearly 2,000 mental health professionals away from their patients across Northern California.”
Catsavas said the two sides have been bargaining for more than a year and have come to an agreement on wage increases. The remaining issue, she said, is the amount of time mental health workers spend on “administrative tasks,” such as patient documentation and treatment planning.
Pulis said patients who do not receive timely and consistent mental health care will ultimately experience worse outcomes.
“What I see is people end up getting worse and sometimes they even end up coming down to the emergency department in crisis,” he said.
On Monday, the California Department of Managed Health Care released a statement saying that it would be monitoring “access to services” during the strike. “The law requires health plans provide enrollees with medically necessary care within timely access and clinical standards at all times, which includes during an employee strike,” said Mary Watanabe, director of the department.
Watanabe encouraged Kaiser members to report any problems they might have receiving appropriate access to care.
Alexis Petrakis, a child psychologist in Kaiser’s Petaluma offices, said the strike is “not about money.” Petrakis, who is part of the bargaining team, agreed that Kaiser’s wages and benefits are generous, but mental health staff are abandoning Kaiser because the overwhelming workload is threatening patient care.
“When you meet with your patient and know that you can’t help them, that’s a moral injury … that’s not something that I can just swallow and just keep going each day,” she said.
Kaiser officials said its staffing problems are part of a larger, nationwide staffing shortage of mental health workers. But workers on the picket line Tuesday said the real shortage was in mental health workers who are willing to put up with Kaiser workloads.
“There’s a shortage of mental health providers that will work under these conditions,” said Pulis.
Kaiser officials said Tuesday that the company had reached out to every patient whose appointment may be affected to make sure they have access to care if needed. All “urgent and emergent cases” are being prioritized, and those who choose not to see another therapist are being rescheduled, as long as it is not detrimental to their care, Kaiser said.
“Approximately 1,600 individual follow-up therapy appointments have been canceled so far this week,” Kaiser said in a statement Tuesday. “We have the ability to reschedule canceled appointments if needed, and are working with our patients to assess their needs and preferences on an ongoing basis.”
Kaiser also said “several hundred” therapists have chosen to continue working and treating patients, “including more today than on the first day of the strike, rejecting the call by union leaders to walk away from people who need help.”
Workers said they’ll remain on strike until they can reach an agreement.
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @pressreno.