By Kevin Schultz
November 5, 2015
Nearly 1,400 Kaiser mental health workers in Northern California will walk off their jobs Nov. 16 to protest what union officials say are too few mental health care employees to meet patient demand.
The workers — psychologists, social workers and therapists — criticize Kaiser’s management, which they say understaffs mental health services, leaving patients waiting far too long for appointments. They also accuse Kaiser of retaliating against them for standing up for their patients, by terminating employment or withholding compensation.
“The problem is simple and so is the solution,” said Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, in a statement. “Kaiser needs to hire enough clinicians to provide timely, appropriate care to the ever-growing number of Kaiser members seeking help and end its retaliation against the caregivers who are courageously standing up for their patients.”
Kaiser says the strike is more about the workers’ pay than patient care. Spokesman Jessie Mangaliman said the union has asked for a 19 percent increase in wages over a three-year period in addition to more than $15,000 in bonuses. “We believe this is excessive,” he said.
He called the workers’ complaints “false accusations” and said Kaiser has had 60 bargaining sessions with the workers, but were unable to meet their needs.
The strike was announced Wednesday after Kaiser offered what it called its “last, best and final” offer in negotiations for a new contract. The offer, Rosselli said, was unacceptable. The strike will end only when the workers’ demands are met, he said. It will affect nearly 80 Kaiser facilities from Fresno to Santa Rosa, including Bay Area Kaiser facilities.
Mangaliman said Kaiser’s mental health care services will remain open throughout the strike, with care provided by physicians and clinical managers, as well as by contracted mental health professionals in the community.
Kaiser officials said they don’t see how a strike of its mental health workers would resolve any alleged shortage in staffing.
But Clement Papazian, an Oakland psychiatric social worker who represents the local chapter of his union, said Kaiser has left the mental health workers no choice but to strike.
Papazian, a 27-year Kaiser employee, said there are documented cases of Kaiser mental health patients committing suicide waiting for appointments.
“If there was any other way to get this employer’s attention and their reliable and active responsiveness to fix the problem, then we would not be going out on strike,” he said.
Some patients have waited up to eight weeks or longer, Papazian said.
Five class-action lawsuits are pending against Kaiser for related issues, Papazian said. Kaiser has paid millions of dollars to the state for violations with its mental health services.
Earlier this year, state regulators said Kaiser had made improvements to its mental health services, but still had problems with access to appointments and information about the coverage provided. Kaiser had shortened the wait for patients to be seen for the first time, but still lagged when it came to follow-up therapy visits, the state Department of Managed Health Care said in its report.
The strike Nov. 16 would be the second this year and fourth since contract negotiations began.
“Bottom line is we really want Kaiser to improve their patient care in mental health,” Papazian said. “And we want a fair and equitable agreement for mental health workers.”