Kaiser’s mental health workers’ union sets strike to start next week

The walkout, slated to start June 11 unless the two sides reach an accord, would affect nearly 100 Kaiser therapists and mental health workers in Sonoma County.|

The union representing 4,000 Kaiser Permanente mental health workers statewide announced on Monday plans for an indefinite strike beginning next week to protest what it claims are severe staff shortages and inadequate pay.

The strike, slated to start June 11 unless the two sides reach an accord, would affect nearly 100 Kaiser therapists and mental health workers in Sonoma County, according to the National Union of Healthcare Workers. Union leaders said Kaiser’s contract proposals thus far focus on hiring more temporary staff rather than full-time therapists.

One of the sticking points of ongoing negotiations is the therapists’ workload. The union contends Kaiser, a major healthcare provider, is focusing only on the initial intake and scheduling of mental health patients, increasingly done by regional call center staff, rather than beefing up therapist hiring for follow-up therapy sessions.

“Those (Kaiser) proposals will make access to care worse,” Sal Rosselli, president of the healthcare workers’ union, said. “Today, once you get your initial assessment and they’ve determined you need therapy, the soonest you can get it is six to 12 weeks from now.”

Kaiser spokesman John Nelson called the union’s threat of a walkout a negotiating ploy.

The union gave a 10-day notice of intent to strike Friday morning to company officials. That morning, Kaiser released a notice titled, “Letter to Mental Health Therapists, Kaiser Permanente Northern California.” The letter outlined Kaiser’s latest contract proposal for the union, which included hiring temporary staff for crisis intake and psychiatric nurses for traige. Kaiser also proposed expanding its recruitment to fill mental health care positions, as well as providing office staff to reduce the “administrative burden” on therapists and other mental health workers.

In addition, Kaiser proposed $56 million of professional development and education-related efforts that would increase the number of therapists, add a student loan repayment program and money for scholarships, fellowship and residency programs.

“It’s disappointing and disheartening that once again, NUHW leadership is putting their bargaining tactics ahead of the needs of people who need mental health care by calling on our therapists to walk away from their patients and strike,” Nelson said in a statement.

Nelson said the union’s response last week to Kaiser’s three-year contract proposal was “unreasonable.” He said the strike notice came before Kaiser could even respond to the union’s counteroffer.

“Despite the union leadership’s tactics, we remain committed to responsibly reaching a new contract agreement, which is what our therapists and patients deserve,” Nelson said.

Kaiser is offering pay increases, lump-sum payments, $5,000 performance bonuses, student loan repayment and other benefits. Kaiser officials claim mental health professionals continue to receive market-leading compensation of 20% to 40% more than the company’s competitors pay similar workers.

But Rosselli said Kaiser’s compensation and benefits proposals do not bring mental health workers in line with other Kaiser medical staff. The mental health workers have been working without a contract since the former labor pact expired in September 2018.

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