Kaiser mental health strike to continue next week, no agreement in sight

Union officials say they are no closer to an agreement after five days of picketing|

After five days of picketing, striking mental health workers at Northern California Kaiser facilities, including Santa Rosa, appear no closer to an agreement, with both sides digging in for what could be a drawn-out labor dispute.

The National Union of Healthcare workers on Friday updated its schedule of picket line actions that extend into September. Meanwhile, Kaiser claims that it is doing everything it can to minimize the disruption in mental health services.

Deb Catsavas, senior vice president of human resources at Kaiser Permanente Northern California, said Friday that a significant number of mental health workers are not participating in the strike and continue to see patients.

“In addition, our Kaiser Permanente psychiatrists, clinical managers, and other licensed clinicians have stepped in to meet with those needing care,” Catsavas said, adding that hundreds of mental health providers Kaiser has contracted have helped blunt the impact of the strike.

“Together, these compassionate professionals have helped ensure we have trusted, professional resources available and have not had to cancel any appointment without extending options for alternative care,” Catsavas said.

That claim was disputed by one local Kaiser member who said she was offered no alternative appointment after her appointment with her counselor was canceled earlier this week. The patient, who lives in Rohnert Park, asked that her name not be used because she didn’t want her therapist getting “in any hot water.”

“I had an appointment scheduled for last Tuesday, which was my first since mid-July,” she said. “I was called by the department saying due to the work stoppage — they said work stoppage, not strike — your appointment has been canceled. I was not offered any rescheduling options.”

The Kaiser patient said she sympathizes with the striking mental health workers and that she had to stop seeing one therapist because she was overwhelmed with work and simply couldn’t take on another patient.

“Sometimes she looked and sounded like she was going to cry,” she said. “She just seemed very, very burned out.”

The strike, launched Monday at Kaiser facilities in Northern California by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, is open-ended, meaning there’s no set date for its conclusion.

The union represents about 2,000 psychologists, therapists, social workers and drug counselors in Northern California. In Sonoma County, the union represents nearly 120 full-time mental health workers.

Local picketing took place Tuesday and is scheduled to resume on Monday and Wednesday next week. Dates are also scheduled for Aug. 29, Aug. 31 and Sept. 2.

On Friday, Kaiser mental health workers across the region participated in a demonstration rally held at Kaiser’s executive offices in Oakland. Alexis Petrakis, a licensed clinical psychologist who works with children at Kaiser’s offices in Petaluma, was among those who joined the march and rally.

Petrakis, who is part of the local bargaining team, said hundreds of Kaiser mental health workers from all over Northern California joined the rally Friday. She said the union is no closer to an agreement with Kaiser after five days of picketing.

In her statement, Catsavas criticized the union for “its primary demand is for union members to spend less time seeing patients.”

But Petrakis said Catsavas is mischaracterizing workers’ request for an additional 30 minutes a day to perform patient care tasks outside of face-to-face appointments, such as returning phone calls and emails from distressed patients, or communicating with social service agencies and ensuring that patients receive help beyond Kaiser.

The union also is asking that mental health workers be allowed to stop taking new patients when they have no available appointments for their current patients within two weeks, as required by state law.

The bottom line, union officials said, is that Kaiser needs to hire more staff.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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