Thousands of health care workers across the state who say their mental health professionals are understaffed and underpaid began a five-day strike against Kaiser Permanente on Monday.
The National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) called the strike to demand the not-for-profit Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) provide higher wages and benefits and more mental health staff.
"We are not asking for anything out of the ordinary, we’re only asking what Kaiser has offered their other employees," said Jim Clifford, who works for Kaiser Permanente.
Kaiser Permanente argues that their organization offers the highest wages for mental health workers in California and that the changes being demanded go beyond wage increases and benefits.
"The union’s principal demands at the bargaining table have not been about improving care and access. Rather, in addition to seeking even higher wages and benefits, the union is demanding changes to performance standards that would reduce, not increase, the availability of mental health care for our patients," a statement from the organization said.
The union said they are also asking Kaiser to lessen the number of patients referred to non-Kaiser therapists, which would lead to shorter wait times, according to NUHW.
Mark Land-Ariizumi with NUHW said many patients have to wait more than six weeks for a return visit for mental health.
"That’s pretty much denying care," Land-Ariizumi said. "You delay care up to six weeks, that’s essentially denying it."
Kaiser argues reducing the number of non-Kaiser therapists would lead to less treatment available for patients.
Chief Operating Officer Annie Russell said the company has added 30 percent more therapists since 2015 and upgraded and expanded their mental health services.
Because the organization is not-for-profit, they can reinvest funds back into their own organization and facilities, according to Russell.
She said the decision to strike is not only disappointing but could hurt the very patients who will need mental health care.
"Strikes are not the way to solve problems, but if it highlights the needs for mental health and to bring mental health out of the shadows then, you know, it will have served at least one service," she said.
Kaiser Permanente said it’s prepared for the strike and will still be ready to treat patients who need care during the week.
Two more bargaining sessions have already been set up for the week, according to Kaiser Permanente. Negotiations with NUHW began in the summer.
Kaiser Permanente has dozens of locations in California and several others across the county. Last year, the company had an annual operating revenue of $72.7 billion.