SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – Thousands of Kaiser mental health professionals are on the picket line after negotiations over staffing and wages stalled last week. The National Union of Health Care workers hit the picket lines at 6 a.m. Monday. The group represents psychologists, therapists, social workers, psychiatric nurses and addiction medicine specialists.
Their message is clear: they are understaffed. The Union says there are thousands of Kaiser patients for every mental health professional.
Ken Rogers is a psychologist who has worked for Kaiser for 15 years. He’s served as a negotiator at the bargaining table several times before. He tells CBS13 this negotiation has been in the works since June.
“Their response is always the same: we don’t have a problem with staffing recruitment or retention. It’s fine. And the condition in clinics…it’ like a sweatshop. It’s unbearable,” he said.
The union wants to see improved patient ratios so they can provide good quality care.
Jaclyn Richardson, a therapist, said “Many of our patients can be in crisis that if not providing therapy can be some lethal consequences. We believe mental health is as important as physical health and it needs to be dealt with in a timely manner.”
A Kaiser Permanente representative said: “We have been hiring therapists, increasing our staff by 30% since 2015-that’s more than 500 new therapists in California even though there’s a national shortage. We’ve invested $175 million to expand and improve mental health care offices. Kaiser Permanente is the highest paying employer for mental health workers in California. The Union is demanding wage increases that would be even higher. Across Kaiser in Northern California the majority of psychologists earn $138,000 and social workers earn $111,000.”
Kaiser said the Union’s principal demands have not been about improving care and access, but higher wages and benefits that would reduce, not increase, the availability of mental health care for patients. Kaiser said it will be providing care for patients during that five-day strike.
Here is the full statement from the Michelle Gaskill-Hames, Chief Nurse Executive, Kaiser Permanente Northern California on the strike:
“As you may know, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, the union representing mental health workers at Kaiser Permanente, has called for a five-day strike this week.
“We want our members and patients to know that during this strike, we are working hard to deliver high-quality care and services. All our hospitals and medical offices are open. Anyone in need of urgent mental health or other care will receive the services they require, although some non-urgent services are being rescheduled. We apologize for any inconvenience caused by this unnecessary strike.
“It’s particularly disheartening that union leadership would call this strike during the holiday season, when many of our patients with mental health needs may be at their most vulnerable.
“Alongside our therapists, Kaiser Permanente has been on a path to be the best mental health and addiction care program in the nation. The quality of the care we provide has been recognized by the state’s Office of the Patient Advocate, and by national quality organizations. We don’t think there is any other organization that is doing more than we are to make mental health care better in the United States. We are committed to doing even more, to innovate, to advance care, and to continually seek to improve what we do.
“We have been hiring therapists, increasing our staff by 30% since 2015 – that’s more than 500 new therapists in California – even though there’s a national shortage. We’ve invested $175 million to expand and improve ourmental health care offices, to provide environments that offer our patients convenience, comfort and privacy.
“Kaiser Permanente is the highest paying employer for mental health workers in California. The union is demanding wage increases that would be even higher.
“Across Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, the majority of psychologists earn $138,000 or more, and the majority of social workers earn $111,000 or more. In Southern California, the majority of psychologists earn $135,000 or more, and the majority of social workers earn $109,000 or more.
“The union’s principal demands at the bargaining table have not been about improving care and access. Rather, in addition to seeking even higher wages and benefits, the union is demanding changes to performance standards that would reduce, not increase, the availability of mental health care for our patients.
- The union wants to reduce the amount of time caregivers spend seeing patients, from an average of 75 percent of time they agreed to in 2015. This would mean fewer appointments for our patients.
- Even though there is a shortage of caregivers, the union wants to stop Kaiser Permanente from working with highly qualified community therapists to ensure access to care for our patients.
- Even worse, the union is discouraging community-based caregivers from treating our patients during this strike. In the union’s words, they are trying to “shut down mental health services” this week. This is irresponsible and dangerously insensitive to people in need of care.
- And in full disclosure: we are seeking no takeaways in our contract proposal. We are offering wage increases which would keep our expert therapists among the best compensated in their profession, and continue to ensure that we attract and retain the most highly skilled professionals.
“Despite the union leadership’s tactics, we are committed to responsibly reaching a new contract agreement. We value our therapists and are calling on them to talk to their union leadership and urge them to bargain constructively, and stop putting our patients in the middle of their contract demands.”