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Kaiser Permanente, union avoid mental health workers strike, approve wage hikes

Last-minute modifications to the contract included wage increases of 6 percent in year one of the contract and a 4.5 percent increase in year two.

Susan Morse, Managing Editor

Averting a strike planned for Monday, Kaiser Permanente and the National Union of Healthcare Workers on Sunday reached a tentative agreement for a 6 percent wage increase during the first year of a three-year contract for mental health employees working in Northern California.

On Sunday, the union accepted a modified proposal after 48 hours of intense talks and after nearly five years of protracted negotiations, according to Kaiser. Union workers have seen no wage increases for four years.

The union rescinded its notice for an open-ended strike to begin on Monday at Kaiser Permanente medical centers in Northern California. Kaiser said it expected its mental health care employees to report to work as scheduled and the that medical centers would be open today.

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Last-minute modifications to the contract included wage increases of 6 percent in year one of the contract and a 4.5 percent increase in year two and again in year three.

[Also: Kaiser Permanente faulted again for limiting access to mental health treatment in California]

Kaiser's previous offer had been 6 percent, 3 percent, and 3 percent.

Kaiser also agreed to rescind its proposed cuts to pension benefits, according to the union.

"We also asked that therapists make contributions to their health benefits just as the vast majority of Americans, including our patients, already do," Kaiser said.

Employees will also make contributions to retiree medical benefits.

The agreement includes about $5,000, or up to 5 percent, in performance bonuses tied to organizational goals for greater access and improved care, specifically in years two and three of the contract, according to Kaiser.

However, the National Union of Healthcare Workers said there were two central issues to the dispute, and neither involved wages.

Under the agreement, Kaiser clinicians -- psychologists, psychiatric social workers, and marriage and family therapists -- will be free to advocate for their patients and meet their treatment needs without threat of discipline or discharge, the union said.

[Also: How hospitals, healthcare providers can avoid labor strikes]

Also, the union and Kaiser have reached an unprecedented agreement on a 1 to 4 ratio of new-to-return patients to ensure timely access to ongoing mental health care for Kaiser members, the union said.

Kaiser said the proposal provides for more return appointments in therapists' schedules, coupled with an expectation that therapists will meet an increased standard for the amount of work time spent seeing patients in individual appointments.

Kaiser Permanente has already hired hundreds of new therapists, and will continue to hire, it said.

"Those efforts on our part will continue, and will not be affected by this agreement," Kaiser said.

"Kaiser has opened the door to a positive working relationship with us with the goal of providing timely, quality care to our patients by hiring hundreds more mental health professionals," said Clement Papazian, a psychiatric social worker at Kaiser Oakland and the elected president of the union's Northern California chapter.

The agreement also expands Kaiser Permanente's ability to use community and outside therapists and referral resources to ensure timely for patients, it said.

Negotiations broke down on November 4 when the bargaining session stalled and Kaiser determined there would be no further progress. The union announced an open-ended strike to begin November 16.

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Former California State Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, acting as mediator, worked intensely with both parties to avert a strike and reached a tentative agreement Sunday evening.

Modifications to the proposal include: Creating a joint committee to review pension benefits and explore alternative retirement income programs to control costs and liabilities for new employees; granting additional steward education days annually; enhanced bilingual pay differential for therapists; and collaborative teams for staff to provide input to improve mental health services and professional practice environment.

"This agreement is aligned with our commitment to improve our quality and affordability and to lead a 21st-century model for mental health care in the nation," said Gregory A. Adams, group president and regional president of Kaiser Permanente in Northern California.

Twitter: @SusanJMorse