Kaiser Permanente issues statements about claims made by the California Nurses Association, bargaining with NUHW and claims they’ve made

By Antonia Ehlers, PR and Media Relations, Kaiser Permanente Northern California

Members of both the California Nurses Association and National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) are participating in sympathy strikes on Friday, Nov. 19, at all Kaiser facilities in Northern California in support of the Engineers, Local 39 who have been on strike for 63 days, as of today.

Kaiser Permanente statement about claims made by the California Nurses Association

November 19, 2021

Note: Kaiser Permanente is not in bargaining with the California Nurses Association, whose contract runs through August 2022.

The last 20 months of this pandemic have been an incredibly challenging and stressful time to work on the front lines of health care. We are extremely grateful for our frontline health care workforce, including our nurses, whose commitment to providing care and service throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been nothing short of inspiring.

And while staffing continues to be a challenge across health care, we have hired hundreds of nurses and other care team members in recent months and continue to support our teams and their need for respite by bringing in experienced temporary staff.  In fact, in spite of the acute shortage of nurses in the state, Kaiser Permanente Northern California will have hired an estimated 1,800 experienced nurses by the end of the year, in addition to adding 300 new nurses who will graduate from Kaiser Permanente’s nurse residency program.

We want to thank our nurses, who demonstrate resilience, expertise and compassion every day. We recognize and have worked hard to ease the stresses that this pandemic has caused our people. Since early in the pandemic response, Kaiser Permanente has provided nearly $600 million in employee assistance to ensure that our frontline employees had access to alternate housing, special childcare grants, and additional paid leave for COVID-19 illness and exposure. When it became clear at year-end that our workers’ performance bonuses could be reduced by the effects of the pandemic, we instead chose to guarantee all eligible union-represented employees at least a 100% payout of their performance bonus, amounting to thousands of dollars a person on average.

Kaiser Permanente statement about bargaining with NUHW and claims made by the union

November 19, 2021

Kaiser Permanente and the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which represents nearly 2,000 of our mental health professionals in Northern California, began bargaining in late July. While the union is issuing press statements about staffing, the real issue at the table is how much therapists are paid. 

This strike is a bargaining tactic this union has used every time it is bargaining for a new contract with Kaiser Permanente, over the past 11 years of its existence. We are still bargaining and are committed to resolving the issues and reaching an agreement.  

There is a national shortage of mental health clinicians that was already a challenge before the pandemic, and over the past year-and-a-half the demand for care has increased everywhere. We have been taking action to address the shortage of caregivers and to ensure care is available to our members. Over the past five years we have added hundreds of new mental health clinicians to our workforce; we currently have more than 300 open positions. We’ve worked hard to expand the number of therapists in California and are investing $30 million to build a pipeline to educate and train new mental health professionals across the state, with an emphasis on expanding the number of bilingual and diverse students entering the mental health field.

We have significantly expanded our ability to provide virtual care to patients who want it, increasing convenience and access, even though NUHW initially objected to this effort. We also continue to scale up our collaborative care programs that have proven to effectively treat patients with anxiety and depression diagnoses. 

As a result of these efforts and more, Kaiser Permanente offers timely access to initial and return appointments that meets all state standards and is above the average of other California providers. While this is an accomplishment during this time of caregiver shortage and increased demand, we are not finished. We know that every appointment is important and matters to each patient, every person’s needs are unique and every Kaiser Permanente member who needs care deserves timely access to that care. 

We have the greatest respect and gratitude for our mental health professionals and we are dedicated to supporting them in their important work. In addition to working with us to improve access to high quality mental health care, we are asking NUHW to work constructively to help address future costs to ensure we continue to be affordable for our members. 

At the heart of the issues in bargaining is this: Health care is increasingly unaffordable, and escalating wages are half of our costs. Kaiser Permanente is indisputably one of the most labor-friendly organizations in the United States. We are committed to remaining an employer of choice for mental health professionals, and to continuing to offer our employees market-leading wages and benefits. But we cannot continue to allow costs to grow beyond what our members can afford.  

The wages our mental health care professionals receive are significantly higher than average in some markets. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, licensed marriage family therapists at Kaiser Permanente earn more than $126,000 on average, which is more than $21,000 higher than market average wages, and licensed clinical social workers make more than $128,000, which is more than $16,000 higher than the market average. The same trend is true in the other parts of Northern California. In Sacramento, licensed clinical social workers earn an average of more than $127,000 in wages, which is $24,000 more than the market average. In addition, we provide among the most generous benefits available. 

The challenge we are trying to address is that if we continue to increase costs so high above the marketplace, our members will not be able to afford to get the care they need. We have to work together to address this challenge in a way that honors and rewards our employees and recognizes the increasing difficulty our members and customers face in paying for care. 

NUHW leadership has called for strikes every time we are in bargaining. It is a key part of their bargaining strategy, and it is especially disappointing that they are asking our dedicated and compassionate employees to walk away from their patients when they need us most. We take seriously any threat to disrupt care. We urge our employees to reject any call for a strike, continue to focus on providing care, and work with us through the bargaining process to finalize a new agreement.

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