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Kaiser mental health professionals gear up for big contract fight


More than 80 percent of NUHW-represented mental health professionals at Kaiser Permanente have already signed onto an “Equity Platform” in advance of contract negotiations that are set to begin in late July.

The platform, which encompasses the top priorities that workers outlined in their bargaining surveys earlier this year, calls on Kaiser to settle a contract that provides equitable treatment for its approximately 2,300 mental health professionals and the patients they serve.

“Kaiser has a responsibility to treat all of its workers and patients with fairness and respect, but that’s not happening in Southern California where we are underpaid and understaffed,” said Bea Jaime-Ly, a psychiatric nurse. “Our bargaining platform provides the solutions we need to reduce burnout, keep dedicated workers at Kaiser and restore equity and fairness for us and Kaiser patients.”

Although Kaiser is often seen as a monolith, its behavioral healthcare systems in Northern and Southern California have been diverging for years. 

The disparity has grown primarily because management in Southern California has made behavioral health care a low priority, while refusing to bargain fairly with its mental health professionals. 

Under the existing contracts in both regions, NUHW-represented mental health professionals in Northern California have:

  • Higher overall salaries 
  • Better benefits including pensions for all workers
  • Higher staffing levels
  • Nearly twice as much time for mental health therapists to perform critical patient care tasks such as responding to patient calls and emails, tailoring treatment plans, communicating with social service agencies and putting notes in patient charts.

“This is the contract where we need to make things right,” said Adriana Webb, a medical social worker in Panorama City. “I’m excited to fight alongside all of my coworkers for a contract that respects us as professionals, and will help my patients who increasingly have to wait too long to see a medical social worker when they’re in the Emergency Room.

Although contract negotiations with Kaiser are never easy, there are many factors working in favor of the NUHW-represented mental healthcare workers this year. 

Kaiser is facing state oversight after being fined $50 million for failing to meet state standards in providing mental healthcare to its 9.5 million members throughout California. The HMO is tasked with making sweeping and transformative improvements to its mental health services — improvements that require a much bigger investment in its Southern California workforce.  

Also, a 10-week strike in 2022 by NUHW-represented mental health therapists in Northern California has raised standards in that region, which helps raise the bar for what can be won in Southern California.

The top priorities for NUHW members in contract bargaining include:

  • Wage increases that reflect recent raises for Kaiser mental health professionals in Northern California and medical professionals in Southern California.
  • Restoration of defined benefit pensions.
  • More time to perform all patient care and administrative duties.
  • Secure flexible work schedules for more job classifications including psychiatric nurses.
  • More Earned Time Off and new mechanisms to ensure that workloads are manageable to reduce burnout and high turnover rates.

“I’ve never seen us so unified,” said Jessica Rentz. “Kaiser targeted us for cuts and got away with it in the past, but we’re not going to let that happen this time around. We’ve seen what workers can do when they stand together and fight for each other and their professional integrity, and that’s what we’re going to do until we win a contract that is fair and equitable.”

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