A dispute between the health care giant Kaiser Permanente and its mental health employees’ labor union over staffing levels and wages is at an impasse, and this Monday workers plan to start an open ended strike.
Northern California's National Union of Healthcare Workers has been negotiating with Kaiser for almost 5 years with no final bargaining agreement. The union says employees are overworked, and for the second time this year, it'll all come to a head with a strike.
Green awning once again blocks parts of the courtyard areas on Kaiser Permanente's Sacramento location from view, a telltale sign the health care company is preparing for a strike.
"Bottom line is Kaiser is working really hard to make this strike fail when they could just do the right thing and give us more staff,” said Ann Amato, a licensed clinical social worker.
Amato sees individual patients and groups for a host of mental health issues from depression to marriage counseling. She says it’s almost impossible for Kaiser 's mental health staff to provide the right care for patients when they're so understaffed and overbooked.
"They cram them into their lunch hours, into the time they're supposed to be doing their notes so a lot of people work overtime all the time to try to catch up,” said Amato.
As a result, she says patients have to wait up to eight weeks in some cases for an appointment.
In 2014 the Department of Managed Health Care fined Kaiser Permanente $4 million due to overly long wait times for patient appointments.
Amato says that issue is at the heart of the strike. Kaiser Permanente officials however say their 1,400 union employees' strike is about money.
"We haven’t gotten wages since 2012, no cost of living raises for three years,” said Amato.
Amato says that’s partly true. Employees, she says, are underpaid and are asking for a 19% raise phased in over six years, counting the previous three for which there were no changes to employee wages. Kaiser officials add the union is demanding $15 thousand in additional bonuses.
But by striking, Kaiser officials say these workers will abandon their patients.
Human resources Vice President Gay Westfall says in a statement to FOX 40:
"The union leadership is calling on Kaiser Permanente’s mental health employees to walk away from their patients for an unlimited duration of time. This shows clear disregard for the well-being of our patients. We are concerned that the union’s misleading claims about Kaiser Permanente, its willingness to ignore its role in representing employees, and its disregard for the disruption it is trying to cause by walking out on patients, are a simply a continuation of the tactics used by this union for years."
Westfall also says Kaiser Permanente has hired hundreds of therapists and is recruiting to hire hundreds more to address staffing shortfalls.
Kaiser officials claim union attorneys sent out a memo to its members urging them not to feel guilty about missing patients, a claim the union says was taken out of context.
FOX 40 reached out today to DMHC who fined Kaiser Permanente last year. An official with the department says Kaiser hasn't fully met their recommendations.
“Kaiser’s actions have not been sufficient to ensure enrollees have consistent timely access to behavioral health services,” a DMHC official said.
There are also 5 class action lawsuits against Kaiser Permanente relating to wait times.