SAN FRANCISCO — Some 4,000 mental health care workers at Kaiser Permanente hospitals and clinics across California began a strike Dec. 10 that is set to last five days.
The National Union of Healthcare Workers and their supporters mounted a spirited picket line outside the Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center, pressing their demands for more staff and better patient care. Their contract, which covers psychologists, therapists and clinical social workers, expired in September.
Members of the California Nurses Association, who have also fought Kaiser for more staffing, joined the picket line in solidarity.
The clinicians are upset with crammed-full appointment schedules and long wait times for their patients. “Don’t deny my patients mental health care,” and “Let me treat addiction” were demands on picketers’ signs.
Union members want more time to prepare for patients and timely follow-up appointments. They want to force Kaiser to hire more mental health clinicians. They demand wage increases to compensate for a five-year wage freeze.
In full-page ads in Bay Area newspapers, Kaiser bosses counter that they have hired 500 new therapists since 2015. To make up for inadequate staffing Kaiser outsources mental health services, defending the practice as “ensuring access to care for our patients.”
But the bosses’ real aim is to undercut union jobs, affecting the quality of care. Defending speedup, the ads say that the union “wants to reduce the amount of time caregivers spend seeing patients.”
“Our patients are desperate and it takes too long to get them in,” Alia Prince, a licensed clinical social worker who works with patients with postpartum depression at Kaiser in Santa Rosa, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “They sometimes wait a month.”
In 2014 Kaiser agreed to pay $4 million in fines to the California Department of Managed Health Care to settle an 18-month fight with state officials over how the company had prevented patients from getting timely access to medical services.
Kaiser Permanente is the third largest so-called nonprofit health care organization in the United States, employing 218,000 workers. It operates in eight states and the District of Columbia.
Wearing a sky-blue UNITE HERE Local 2 windbreaker, Nicholas Javier was delighted to see Socialist Workers Party member Joel Britton marching in solidarity with the strikers on the picket line. Britton was wearing a “One job should be enough” union button he had gotten at the recent Local 2 strike against Marriott hotels in the Bay Area. A server at Marriott’s Westin St. Francis hotel, Javier said he had rushed down to support the health workers strike as soon as he finished his shift. Co-worker Jose Zepeda did the same.
“These folks stood with us, especially during the last week of our strike,” Javier said. The Marriott strikers ended their two-month strike in San Francisco Dec. 3. “When you stand with Local 2, we stand with you.” Among the contract provisions successfully defended from Marriott’s cutback demands was their Kaiser health plan.