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Kaiser mental health workers to go on strike Monday

The union representing Kaiser Permanente mental health care workers in Sonoma County said its members will go on strike Monday, walking off the job for the second time in 10 months.

Unlike a January strike that lasted five days, next week’s National Union of Health Care Workers strike has no ending date. Its members voted to remain on strike until Kaiser agrees to increase staffing and refrain from any retaliation against whistleblowers.

Kaiser spokesman Carl Campbell said the strike should have minimal impact on operations. Mental health care will be provided by physicians, clinical managers and contract mental health workers during the walkout, he said.

Both Kaiser management and union leaders claimed the other side is not bargaining in good faith.

The National Union of Health Care Workers, which represents about 75 Kaiser mental health workers in Sonoma County and 1,500 in Northern California, said Kaiser is offering both wage and benefits proposals that are substantially less than what the health care giant has offered thousands of other employees. It contends Kaiser is trying to punish mental health care workers who have publicly blasted the HMO for inadequate mental health services.

“It’s supposed to be a lesson to the other 100,000 Kaiser employees that if they advocate for their patients they’ll be punished,” said Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

Kaiser said in a statement that it had reached an “impasse” with the union after four years and 10 months of unfruitful negotiations, 60 bargaining sessions in total. The Oakland-based health care provider said it was treating NUHW members no differently than other unions.

“During this time Kaiser Permanente has consistently sought to reach an agreement,” Kaiser said in a statement. “It has become clear to us from the union’s refusal to bargain seriously over critical issues that it is not possible to reach an agreement at this time.”

Rosselli said that Kaiser is offering mental health workers a 12.5 percent wage increase over a three-year period ending in 2017. The NUHW is seeking a 19 percent wage increase over the three-year period, Kaiser said.

The union disputes this characterization of its demands. Rosselli said that during the previous three years, Kaiser froze wages for mental health workers even as it gave other union employees 3 and 4 percent annual increases. For the combined six-year period, he said, Kaiser nurses with the California Nurses Association received a 24.1 percent wage increase and Kaiser engineers received a 20.2 percent increase.

“Since 1981, every union has gotten a similar across-the-board wage increase,” said Rosselli, insisting that Kaiser is targeting NUHW workers because the union had pointed out deficiencies in mental health services.

Kaiser said other unions received pay increases because they negotiated new contracts, noting that it had reached agreements with more than 30 other unions over the nearly five-year period it has been in talks with the NUHW. During that period, NUHW negotiators rejected three proposals that would have increased wages for therapists, including an offer in 2013 that included retroactive wages, said Gay Westfall, senior vice president of Kaiser human resources in Northern California.

“The difference is that unions who bargained one or even two agreements during the same prolonged period of NUHW bargaining received wage increases as part of their contract agreements,” she said.

In preparation for the strike, Kaiser has canceled appointments for some local mental health patients. Kaiser officials said that some appointments were canceled in cases where Kaiser management expected the therapists to be absent.

“We know that some therapists will choose to go out on strike instead of coming to work, and we will need to cancel some non-urgent appointments over the next few days as we evaluate our staffing levels and make appropriate adjustments to ensure our members’ continued care,” Westfall said this week.

One Rohnert Park patient, who asked that her name not be used, said her appointment for Nov. 17 was canceled this week by someone representing her therapist, citing the pending strike.

The patient expressed deep frustration with what she views as inadequate mental health services. The strike, she said, won’t make matters much worse, she said.

“Considering the minimal amount of mental health care I’ve been getting from them, it’s really not going to make much of a difference,” she said.

She said she usually must wait 30 to 45 days for a one-on-one therapy appointment and is often encouraged to do group therapy, because “that’s the only way to be sure to be seen by someone regularly.”

The union has strongly criticized the quality of mental health care offered by Kaiser. In a 2011 report, titled “Care Delayed, Care Denied,” it contended that Kaiser was understaffed and frequently failed to provide timely and appropriate care to mental health patients.

After a routine survey in 2012, state regulators found that Kaiser was not accurately tracking patients’ access to its therapists. The agency said Kaiser was unable to ensure patients were offered timely initial appointments with therapists for non-urgent matters, in violation of state regulations.

The state Department of Managed Health Care later fined Kaiser $4 million for what the agency said were “deficiencies” in Kaiser’s mental health services. Kaiser at first challenged the penalty but last fall opted to pay the fine, though it did not concede to the state’s findings.

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

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