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Local Kaiser Permanente mental health clinicians vote to strike if negotiations fall through

Kaiser Permanente - Kihei Clinic
Kaiser Permanente Hawaii
Kaiser Permanente - Kihei Clinic

There’s more labor trouble for Kaiser Permanente. Mental health clinicians in California and Hawaiʻi have voted to authorize a strike if negotiations on a contract fall through. Workers say they are severely understaffed, and that’s affecting patient care.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers represents about 4,000 psychologists, social workers, psychiatric nurses, and chemical dependency counselors at Kaiser clinics in California and Hawaiʻi — 51 of whom are local. Members voted last week to authorize a strike if they cannot reach agreement on a contract.

In a complaint filed with the Hawaiʻi Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, the union says understaffing at mental health clinics is placing the health and safety of patients at risk by making them wait six to seven weeks for an appointment.

The complaint also accuses Kaiser of violating state and federal health care laws, such as not conducting performance reviews of its behavioral health services and failing to provide out-of-network care for patients unable to get appointments.

Rachel Kaya, a psychologist at Kaiser Permanente's Maui Lani Clinic, says understaffing is a longstanding problem, but the pandemic has made it worse.

"The stress levels went through the roof when the pandemic happened. Here on Maui, we saw unemployment rates go from 3% to over 30% right away, and with the economic uncertainty, there were all kinds of emotional stress and the things that occur because of it. Domestic violence, substance abuse, people being depressed and hopeless and suicidal made the need for our services even more acute with less staff," Kaya told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Kaya says her caseload is so large that she is scheduling appointments for January. She says many of her patients need immediate help.

The union also says Kaiser is making the situation worse in its contract negotiations. It says Kaiser is proposing no raises for mental health staff, the elimination of pensions, as well as a lower wage scale for new hires.

Kaya says this will make jobs in that industry even less attractive, crippling hiring efforts.

In a statement, Kaiser's Senior Vice President of Human Resources Arlene Peasnall says they have worked to keep up with the demand for mental health services by ramping up virtual care options.

Peasnall says increasing health care costs are threatening to put a damper on the very mental health services upon which their members rely. She says clinicians like psychologists and social workers in Hawaiʻi make well above market average salaries.

Contract negotiations will continue next week. A strike authorization vote does not mean a walkout will take place. By law, the union must present a formal strike notice to Kaiser, and then set a strike date.

Kaiser is already facing other areas of labor unrest.

Members of UNITE HERE Local 5, which represents about 1,800 Kaiser workers in Hawaiʻi, voted last week to authorize a strike. And pharmacists, physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech language pathologists in Hawaiʻi joined colleagues in California in also authorizing a strike.

Scott Kim was a news editor at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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