Mental health professionals and their supporters protest in front of Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa on Monday, Jan. 12, 2015. The National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents about 118 full- and part-time Kaiser Permanente therapists in Sonoma County, has called for a strike next week to protest a severe and persistent staffing shortage they say is leading to delayed care during a time of mental health crises. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat file)

‘It’s time to take a stand’: Union representing Kaiser mental health therapists threatens strike

The National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents about 118 full- and part-time Kaiser Permanente therapists in Sonoma County, has called for a strike to protest a severe and persistent staffing shortage they say is leading to delayed care during a time of mental health crises.

A Kaiser mental health worker in Petaluma said Wednesday morning that more and more staff are leaving the their jobs because Kaiser refuses to increase their ranks to address the growing need.

“The burnout is really intense because the acuity and the intensity has increased, as well as the volume,” said Alexis Petrakis, a licensed clinical psychologist who works with children. “We’re all trying to meet the needs of an ever growing crisis with fewer and fewer resources because people are leaving.”

The local strike, planned for Monday, Aug. 15, is part of a larger NUHW walkout across Northern California. The union, which is in contract negotiations with Kaiser, represents some 2,000 Kaiser mental health workers in Northern California.

Petrakis, who is part of the local bargaining team, said the union is scheduled to meet again Friday for negotiations.

Kaiser, in a statement called the strike threat a “bargaining tactic” that’s been frequently used by the union over the past 12 years. Kaiser said called the planned strike “perplexing” since the two sides were coming close to an agreement.

“In our last bargaining session, we were about 1% apart in our respective wage proposals, and we came to bargaining last Friday with hopes to bargain vigorously and bring negotiations to a conclusion,” Kaiser’s statement said. “Unfortunately, union leadership delivered a fully new economic proposal from NUHW that avoids reaching agreement and pushes us further apart.”

But Petrakis said the primary issue is not wages but inadequate staffing levels. She said that in her team of 70 mental workers, which serves the area between San Rafael and Petaluma, about 16 have left in the last year alone.

Petrakis said the staff shortage is so severe that mental health workers are unable to see clients in a timely manner.

A best-case scenario, she said, is booking a 30-minute phone call withing two weeks, though the average wait for such appointments is a month.

She said that currently she’s not able to see a returning patient for six weeks.

The union, which represents psychologists, therapists, chemical dependency counselors and social workers, said the strike is an effort to demand that Kaiser, the nation’s largest nonprofit HMO, provide mental health care at the same level that it does medical care.

“Patients are getting ripped off while Kaiser’s coffers are bulging,” Sal Rosselli, NUHW president, said in a statement. “We don’t take striking lightly but it’s time to take a stand and make Kaiser spend some of its billions on mental health care.”

Kaiser said the company hopes to resolve the conflict before a strike occurs but said in its statement, “we regularly prepare comprehensive contingency plans and remain prepared to ensure our members will receive the care they need, should NUHW move forward with this strike.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or [email protected] On Twitter @pressreno.

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