On the Picket Line

Calif. mental health workers: ‘We fight for our patients’

By Betsey Stone
September 12, 2022

OAKLAND, Calif. — More than 2,000 mental health care workers, including therapists, psychologists and social workers, went on strike Aug. 15 at the HMO giant Kaiser Permanente in northern California. The key issue is inadequate staffing.

A California law that took effect in July requires health care providers to offer timely appointments to mental health and addiction patients, including scheduling follow-up visits within 10 days. The striking workers, members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, say patients may wait as much as two months for follow-up appointments.

After years of protesting understaffing, union members voted by 93% to go out on strike, determined to stay on the picket lines until Kaiser agrees to address their concerns.

“We are fighting for our patients and our patients overwhelmingly support us,” Jesus Solorio, a therapist at Oakland Kaiser, told this Militant  worker-correspondent while picketing at the San Leandro hospital Aug. 24.

The mental health workers have been working under an expired contract for close to a year. The union has agreed to Kaiser’s offers on pay and benefits, but the bosses haven’t budged on staffing.

Kaiser Permanente bosses claim they’ve addressed this issue by hiring 200 therapists since January 2021. Strikers say many are leaving Kaiser due to the conditions. 

At a San Francisco rally the first day of the strike, Willow Thorson, a clinician in Santa Rosa, told the Militant  it was understaffing that led therapists to unionize in 2010. “Now the situation is worse,” she said. “Patients are getting hospitalized when more timely care would have avoided this. This is taking place when we need more mental health treatment and hospital beds, as well as housing and jobs.” 

Some 22,000 registered nurses and nurse practitioners will begin holding informational pickets at 22 Kaiser facilities Sept. 1 to protest short staffing and other issues.

Stationary engineers carried out a 90-day strike at Kaiser hospitals last year, but still don’t have a contract. Some joined the National Union of Healthcare Workers’ picket at the San Leandro Kaiser hospital Aug. 24. “Union solidarity is important. Put that in the paper,” engineer Nelson Ocampo said.