Kaiser Permanente mental health clinicians ratify contract, ending 10-week strike
Marilyn Bechtel / People's World

OAKLAND, Calif.—Kaiser Permanente mental health therapists in northern California and the Central Valley have voted by an overwhelming 1,561 to 36 to ratify a new contract with breakthrough provisions to retain staff and reduce patients’ wait times, the therapists’ union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, announced in an early-morning statement Oct. 21.

NUHW said the contract also includes a plan for labor and management collaboration to transform Kaiser’s model for providing mental health care. The strike by over 2,000 therapists, which began Aug. 15 and lasted 10 weeks, was the longest mental healthcare workers strike in U.S. history. Agreement was reached earlier this week after Sacramento Mayor and former state Senate head Darrell Steinberg stepped in to serve as mediator.

The therapists’ four-year contract is retroactive to September 2021 and expires in September 2025. The new pact includes significant gains—essentially the same provisions the therapists had accepted before the strike began—and now it also has provisions to improve mental healthcare for Kaiser patients.

Marilyn Bechtel / People’s World

Among key contract provisions:

  • Nearly two additional hours per week for critical patient care responsibilities like responding to patient emails and voicemails, tailoring treatment plans, communicating with social service agencies and charting appointments. A recent union survey found lack of time for those functions was the main reason for the high turnover rate among clinicians, which doubled over the past year.
  • A commitment by Kaiser to hire more therapists and expand new treatment track programs allowing certain patients better access to appointments over a shorter period of treatment.
  • Kaiser’s commitment to work with therapists on a plan to expand crisis services to nearly all its clinics.
  • An agreement to increase from 60 to 90 minutes the amount of time therapists have for initial assessments of children seeking mental health care.
  • An increase in additional pay for bilingual therapists, from $1 per hour to $1.50 per hour – the highest differential Kaiser has agreed to in California – to help Kaiser recruit and retain therapists to meet the needs of non-English speaking patients.

The contract also includes five separate labor-management Model of Care Committees to meet over the next six months to make recommendation on critical aspects of Kaiser’s service model, including patient intakes, child and family therapy, and crisis care. The union says these committees will be different from earlier Model of Care Committees that disappointed clinicians, because Kaiser will be required to implement and fully fund the committees’ recommendations, and if they cannot reach agreement, Mayor Steinberg has agreed to help mediate solutions.

The Model of Care Committees will help guide Kaiser as it works to comply with state Senate Bill 221, the law authored by state Senator Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, which entered into effect in July and requires all health insurers to provide therapy sessions within 10 business days unless the treating therapist determines a longer wait would not harm the patient. Patients have been waiting months to start therapy sessions and four to eight weeks between appointments; ending these dangerously long wait times was among reasons the therapists launched their strike.

The new contract “puts us on a much stronger footing to work with Kaiser to help it become a great place to give and receive mental health care,” Ilana Marcucci-Morris, a licensed clinical social worker at Kaiser Oakland and a member of the union’s bargaining committee, said in a statement. “But any successful collaboration will require Kaiser’s total commitment to devote the resources necessary to meet California’s timely access to care requirements. We expect Kaiser to follow the law, and we expect the state to enforce it.”

NUHW President Sal Rosselli said he is “proud of Kaiser therapists for standing up for their patients and their profession … Our members want to apply their professional judgment to better serve patients and they want to be treated with respect by their employer, rather than as cogs in a wheel. They want to be given the time necessary to do their jobs properly. Kaiser wanted to give orders, but not listen. This contract will help reset that relationship.”

However, while the strike in northern California and the Central Valley is over, NUHW says Kaiser therapists in Hawaii are continuing their eight-week-long strike because there, Kaiser is demanding they accept wage freezes and cuts to their retirement benefits.


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.