Kaiser mental health clinicians threaten statewide strike over contract talks

Photo: Zac Goldstein/NUHW

Thousands of mental health clinicians could soon walk off the job at Kaiser Permanente facilities statewide after 80 percent of them voted this week to authorize an open-ended strike, according to officials with the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

The 4,000 members of the NUHW could walk out as early as June if they are unable to reach a contract agreement with Kaiser, union leaders said Thursday.

The clinicians, including psychologists, therapists, social workers, psychiatric nurses and addiction medicine specialists, are demanding that Kaiser increase staffing levels to address what union leaders call a crisis of access to mental health services.

"The big picture is that there's a culture, not just at Kaiser but all over the country, of not treating mental heath (issues) like a disease," said NUHW President Sal Rosselli. "There is a crisis inside Kaiser."

Rosselli said that Kaiser patients are often left to wait months for follow-up appointments and are referred to out-of-network clinicians who are often unavailable.

"It's horrendous. Consequently there are suicides," Rosselli said.

The union is also demanding cost-of-living wage increases and benefits to match those enjoyed by medical clinicians, Rosselli said.

The mental health workers are also asking for more time to do preparation and follow-up work, especially with patients' families, and for an end to subcontracting.

They also want to establish a process by which workers can have more input over staffing and hiring decisions, according to Rosselli. Kaiser's NUHW members have been working without a contract since September and currently union leadership and Kaiser officials are meeting with a mediator.

"Kaiser is saying they will have a proposal for us on Monday, so we'll know more then" what the prospect of a strike might be, according to Rosselli. Kaiser called the union's strike threat and media outreach "predictable," "cynical" and "destructive."

"Last week, we reached out to all our California therapists to let them know we believe that we are on a path toward a new labor agreement," said Kaiser spokesman John Nelson.

"NUHW leadership has responded to our communication to therapists with a daily flurry of press releases, more allegations, renewed advertising smears, and more."

Kaiser's health care clinicians staged a five-day strike last December over similar issues but were unable to reach a contract agreement.