Mental health workers prepare to strike against Kaiser

Getting an appointment to see a mental health therapist et a lot more difficult for thousands of people in the Bay Area.

Beginning Monday morning, roughly 2,000 mental health care workers with Kaiser are going on strike.

These mental health care workers have been working without a contract since last September, according to their union.  Negotiations failed Saturday and workers say the sticking point is not about money.  

About a dozen Kaiser mental health care clinicians were outside their union’s Emeryville office Sunday making picket signs and preparing to strike, which will begin in San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Fresno, then rotate to other cities. 

Although representatives from The National Union of Healthcare Workers reached an agreement with Kaiser on wages, another issue remains outstanding, the demand that Kaiser hire more mental health workers to alleviate an overburdened workforce, and help meet the growing demand for patient care.

"It’s about the fact that Kaiser patients have to wait months just to start therapy regimens and once they start a therapy regimen they’re waiting 4 to 8 weeks between appointments," said Matthew Artz, a spokesman for NUHW.

That’s because there aren’t enough mental health workers to meet the demand, something even Kaiser acknowledges.  

And the union said mental health workers are quitting in droves.

"It’s gotten to be a crisis within Kaiser.  They can’t hold on to clinicians," said Kathy Ray, a clinical social worker.

Ray will be part of the strike.  She said in addition to the face-to-face hour with clients, there’s important collateral work Kaiser isn’t giving her enough time to do.  She said she and others are stressed to the point that the therapists need therapy.

"That’s why they’re leaving.  It’s unsustainable.  It’s a crisis that we’re in the midst of," said Ray.

In a statement, Kaiser indicated in a typical 40-hour week, therapists get 34 hours to see patients and six for administrative tasks.  Kaiser says it offered to increase the six hours to 7.2, but that the union wants nine. 

Union reps said that’s inaccurate, and that what kaiser calls administrative tasks is actually important work related to patient care.

"Right now therapists get about an hour a day to do that work and it’s not nearly enough," said Artz.

Regarding the strike, Kaiser said in part: "For the entirety of its 12 years of existence, NUHW has used the threat of strikes as a bargaining tactic in every contract negotiation."

The walk out will include workers such as psychologists, clinical social workers, chemical dependency councilors and others.

And with no new negotiations planned, their strike timeline remains open-ended.

"As long as it takes.  Incredible unity and determination," said Artz.

Kaiser says it has hired hundreds of new mental health clinicians, including 200 since January of 2021, and added they’re working hard to be ready to meet the mental health needs of patients during the strike.