Nearly 200 Kaiser mental health clinicians went on strike in Oakland to demand better care for communities of color, representatives of the National Union of Healthcare Workers said.

Psychologists, social workers, addiction counselors and marriage and family therapists from Oakland and Richmond picketed Monday morning outside Kaiser’s Oakland hospital at 3600 Broadway.

At 10:30 a.m., the workers marched to Kaiser’s headquarters at 1 Kaiser Plaza in Oakland and held a rally there, organizers said. No strike activity took place in Richmond.

“Kaiser treats mental health care as separate and unequal to its medical care,” said Sabrina Chaumette, a social worker who is one of only five Black mental health clinicians providing care to adult Kaiser patients in Oakland, in a statement.

“I appreciate that my clinic asks patients if they want to work with therapists who can provide culturally responsive care, but at Kaiser we just don’t have the numbers to do it. Because we’re so understaffed, my next available intake appointment is in four months,” Chaumette said.

“I appreciate that my clinic asks patients if they want to work with therapists who can provide culturally responsive care, but at Kaiser we just don’t have the numbers to do it.”

Sabrina Chaumette, Black social worker

Workers were also striking because they were promised a paid holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and management backtracked on that promise, union organizers said.

Kaiser acknowledged there was a miscommunication and apologized after some employees at a department locally were told Monday would be a paid holiday. The healthcare provider said the day would be a scheduled paid holiday starting in 2023 across its organization in eight states and the District of Columbia.

In a survey of 1,500 Kaiser employees represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, 41 percent said that they have had patients find it challenging to access or maintain treatment because of a lack of a culturally sensitive provider.

“Kaiser tries to present itself as an enlightened organization, but that’s not the experience for Black and Brown therapists or patients,” said Jessica Dominguez, the founder and lead clinician at Kaiser Permanente’s La Clinica, a program in Richmond that serves Spanish speaking residents, in a statement.

Kaiser therapists walk the picket line in Oakland. (Photo by Maggie Sisco/National Union of Healthcare Workers via Bay City News)

“We see an organization that won’t even take the smallest step to confront structural racism and shows no urgency to stop the continued departures of clinicians of color who can provide all of Kaiser’s patients with culturally competent care,” Dominguez said.

Kaiser Permanente later issued a statement that 37 percent of its mental health staff is diverse, and 8 percent of its therapists are Black, compared to a national average of 3 percent, according to the American Psychological Association.

“While we are pleased that our percentages are higher than the national average, we’re committed to advancing diversity at every level of the organization and know we can do more,” Kaiser said.

Kaiser also said it is in contract talks with the NUHW.

“It is unfortunate that the union is using this important topic as a tactic to try to gain leverage in bargaining,” Kaiser officials said. “It is especially disappointing that they are asking our dedicated and compassionate employees to walk away from patients who need us. Every time we are in contract negotiations with NUHW, they strike and this time is no different.”

Keith Burbank is currently a fulltime reporter covering Alameda County and Oakland news for Bay City News. He has also worked on the Data Points project for Local News Matters, finding trends and stories about the region through data. In 2019, he was a California Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, producing a series about homeless deaths in Santa Clara County. He worked as a swing shift editor for the newswire for several years as well. Outside of journalism, Keith enjoys computer programming, math, economics and music.