Kaiser Permanente workers across the state began picketing at 7 a.m. Tuesday in a one-day strike over a new contract for mental health and optical employees.
Thousands of workers took to picket lines in support of 4,000 employees who are members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, a NUHW representative said. In Walnut Creek, several hundred registered nurses represented by the California Nurses Association took part in a sympathy strike.
"We're out her supporting NUHW and (Stationary Engineers) Local 39. Recently they've had a big cut with mental healthcare workers that's forcing patients to wait five to six weeks for an appointment and to have group therapy instead of one-on-one," said Starr Cunningham, a medical surgical nurse at Kaiser Walnut Creek.
NUHW, which represents mental health clinicians, clinical psychologists, licensed social workers and opticians, has been in contract negotiations for more than a year. The breakdown in talks involves a salary and benefits package that Kaiser "put on the table many, many months ago," said Debbie Raymond, a chief nursing officer for Kaiser. Kaiser and NUHW have reached tentative agreements on 31 elements of the new contract.
The union claims that Kaiser has refused to address caregiver concerns about what they say is chronic short staffing and its negative impacts on patient care.
"We're not practicing the way we were trained," said Spencer Gross, a NUHW member and psychologist working at Kaiser's Pleasanton mental health clinic. "Kaiser is doing unbelievable well, they're making $10 million a day in profit and they don't want to up staffing. We want to emphasize patient care and we want to be able to serve people well, and it's darn frustrating."
"It is disappointing that Kaiser is refusing to bargain for sufficient staffing for mental health services, and a secure retirement and accessible health coverage for its frontline caregivers despite its record profits," said Zenei Cortez, a CNA co-president who works at Kaiser South San Francisco.
Gay Westfall, Kaiser's senior vice president of human resources, called the union's allegations that Kaiser Permanente is proposing to eliminate retirement benefits "simply untrue" and said Kaiser is disappointed with NUHW and CNA's decision to strike.
"Kaiser Permanente nurses received 5 percent raises for each of the past three years, and they have an excellent contract in place through 2014 that provides…wage increases twice each year," Westfall said in a written statement. "We believe the union's action, which creates risk for patients, is irresponsible and expressly prohibited in our contract with the nurses' union, and we have taken legal action in court."
The last work stoppage cost the Northern California region cost $14 million in resources that could be devoted to staff and patients, he added.
Although NUHW members say they are at risk of losing pensions and increasing healthcare costs, nurses and practitioners on sympathy strike have mainly taken issue with staffing levels at Kaiser's mental healthcare clinics -- including those in Walnut Creek, Pleasanton and Concord. Insufficient staff levels at clinics have overburdened practitioners, who are supposed to see seven new patients weekly.
"If someone comes up for an appointment and they have to wait weeks, there's a good chance they won't show up. Then if they have to wait three or four weeks for the next appointment, they'll drop out of treatment or pay out of pocket to see a private therapist," said Gross, adding that there has been an increase in mental health need due to economic stresses.
While the 19 clinicians in Gross' practice work overtime and take patients during lunch, they still cannot absorb the amount of people looking for care. Gross said there is no standard nurse or doctor-to-patient ratio, but noted that the 40 therapists in Walnut Creek's larger clinic are also underserved by 8 to 10 nurses.
"Physicians have told me that sympathy striking is the right thing and they're very concerned about staffing levels and what is happening to mental health," said Trande Phillips, a pediatric nurse in Walnut Creek. "They have seen the impact in their own practice, especially in the clinic."
Phillips, Gross and Cunningham all said they have heard complaints from coworkers, fellow nurses and patients who are unable to get timely appointments and follow-up treatments in Kaiser. Cunningham estimated that approximately 80 percent of Walnut Creek's 1,200 nurses are supportive or on strike.
"As a Kaiser member myself, my whole family has Kaiser, I'm very concerned that these issues are settled and they have the staffing they need," Phillips said. "As a registered nurse I know how important mental healthcare is to patients during times of stress. I needed to be there to protest the fact that Kaiser is making major cuts to mental healthcare and staffing."
Although Gross hopes the strike will convince Kaiser to bargain in good faith around staffing and benefit reductions, he said there will definitely be additional strikes.
This is the second time Northern California Kaiser registered nurses have participated in a walkout since Sept. 22, 2011, when thousands of nurses picketed at more than 30 hospitals to support Sutter Health nurses who were navigating contract negotiations. The CNA estimated that 17,000 RNs in Northern California and approximately 650 building and equipment vendors represented by Local 39 took part in sympathy strikes Tuesday.