Kaiser Mental Health workers in the Bay Area and Northern California plan to strike Monday morning

About 2,000 mental health workers for Kaiser Permanente across the Bay Area and Central Valley in California plan to strike Monday, asking the health care provider to increase staffing to reduce onerous wait times for patients seeking appointments.

Therapists and counselors plan to sit in San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento and Fresno on Monday and continue in other cities in the Bay Area until an agreement is reached, according to a statement from the National Federation of Health Care Workers. The move includes most mental health workers in the Kaiser Northern California system, excluding psychiatrists.

The union said the planned strike follows a bargaining session that ended Saturday without an agreement between the health care provider, Northern California psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists and chemical dependence counselors. While the union said it agreed to a wage offer from Kaiser this weekend, other issues related to employment and working conditions prevented an agreement from being struck.

“This is a last resort to do what we can to change things in the future, because as things progress now, things are only going to get worse for patients,” said Sarah Sorokin, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Kaiser in Solano County. “It is a very difficult and emotional decision. But it is something we feel is necessary at this point.”

In a statement, Kaiser Permanente said the union is “exploiting current challenges as a bargaining tactic” that threatens to affect their patients.

“This strike is an unnecessary tactic to increase union influence at the negotiating table, making it more difficult, not easier, to deliver mental health care,” said a statement from Deb Katsavas, senior vice president of human resources at Kaiser Permanente Northern California.

The work stoppage comes amid a row between Kaiser and his therapists over staffing, burnout among therapists and the time employees take each week to complete administrative tasks.

The problem, Kaiser said, is the amount of time therapists spend on administrative tasks each week. Under the current agreement, doctors book 6 hours out of every 40 hour week for administrative work. Kaiser said he’s proposing an increase to 7.2 hours a week, while the union asked for 9 hours a week.

Doing so would reduce the time these therapists and counselors spend with their patients from 34 hours a week to 31 hours, Kaiser’s statement said.

“Our patients cannot afford a proposal that dramatically reduces the time available to care for our patients and their mental health needs,” the statement said.

The trade union responded that doctors are being forced to do this work in their spare time, due to an acute staff shortage and widespread fatigue among therapists. As a result of these staffing issues, patients have to endure “dangerous” long waiting periods for care, including months to start therapy sessions.

Many patients have to wait one to two months between treatment appointments. The union also claims that the provider does not adequately check patients at risk of suicide, and fails to admit them into innovative outpatient treatment programs as needed.

“We have tried everything to improve working conditions and patient care conditions at Kaiser,” Sorokin said. “Nothing changes the fact that our patients at Kaiser wait four to 12 weeks between their individual treatment appointment, which is a dangerously long waiting period for patients with active symptoms.”

Check back for more of this story developing.

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