On Tuesday, mental health clinicians for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California went on strike. While Kaiser and the union representing the therapists appear to have reached agreement on wages, the sides remain in dispute on issues related to staffing, working conditions, and client access to care. Kaiser reps have responded by calling the strike itself “unethical.” They have said that union leaders were asking therapists to “walk away from people who need help.” Suggesting that your own employees are unethical when they are striking to force Kaiser to improve patient access to mental health care is, as they say, a choice. It’s one that would seem destined to only worsen Kaiser’s ability to recruit and retain therapists in the future.
Why the Kaiser mental health strike matters
Thousands of California mental health professionals working for Kaiser plan to begin an open-ended strike on June 11. They are protesting the company’s ongoing failure to staff up their mental health operations, resulting in Kaiser patients waiting several weeks between appointments. More than 700 stories of the human impacts of these wait times can be found at kaiserdontdeny.com.
I initially posted about Kaiser’s mental health labor force struggles late last year, when therapists staged a five-day walkout. Kaiser has told its workforce that they believe progress has been made since then on a new contract, but Kaiser’s NUHW workers have been working without a contract since September, and are clearly tired of waiting. The dispute hasn’t fundamentally changed since the December walkout. In April, NUHW workers staged a one-day work stoppage in Pasadena.
My original post, published December 12, 2018, follows:
On Monday, roughly 4,000 mental health professionals employed by Kaiser Permanente in California began a planned five-day strike. The therapists (and nurses, who also walked out in solidarity) say they are protesting the massive and continued failure on Kaiser’s part to provide adequate mental health care to its own patients.
This strike is, in some ways, like other strikes you’ve heard about. While the therapists are highlighting client care issues, Kaiser itself notes that those therapists also are demanding better pay and working conditions — common demands to strike over. But this strike is also deeply unusual in the mental health world. Even when therapists are in a union, strikes are very rare. For that reason, this strike is uniquely important.
Why good therapists suffer from exploitation
Barry Duncan has an article in the current Psychotherapy Networker asking, “Why would anybody become a therapist?” The job offers low pay compared to other jobs with similar training requirements. Workers in community mental health are often stretched beyond the breaking point. And as we’ve covered here regularly, employer abuses of therapists are unfortunately common. When even a single therapist pushes back against exploitation, it makes a real difference. But that doesn’t happen very often.
Duncan’s article offers some interesting overlaps with our past coverage here. It can explain fairly well why even the best therapists can be easy targets for exploitation at work.
Why we’re launching #PostThePay
Today, too many job listings for therapists and counselors are vague about pay, if they mention it at all. It’s part of a culture in mental health that keeps salaries low and professionals feeling disempowered. When employers #PostThePay — even as a range — both employers and applicants benefit.
That’s why we’re launching a social campaign encouraging employers to do exactly that.
Kaiser mental health workers to strike
The National Union of Healthcare Workers announced Saturday that its 2,600 Kaiser mental health care clinicians in California would begin a weeklong strike today. The strike is being described as the largest of its kind in the nation.