Psychologists, social workers and therapists employed at Kaiser Permanente's Oakland and Richmond, California, clinics will go on strike for a day to protest Martin Luther King Jr. Day not being a paid holiday.
The strike is set to take place Monday, Jan. 17, outside Kaiser Permanente's Oakland Medical Center and corporate headquarters in downtown Oakland. Around 200 workers plan to march alongside allies and elected officials.
The strike is the latest move by Kaiser Permanente employees to address issues of structural racism within the organization, said Ixayanne Baez, a marriage and family therapist at Kaiser Permanente's Oakland clinic.
"We have lost very qualified Black leadership because there has been such a lack of response," she said. "Because of the very little support that is put into cultural competency, cultural responsiveness and supporting Black staff."
Following the killing of George Floyd in 2020, Black mental health clinicians at Kaiser Permanente's Oakland and Richmond facilities initiated conversations with health system leadership, who subsequently agreed to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid holiday for all mental health clinicians in northern California, according to the National Union of Healthcare Workers.
In an emailed statement, Kaiser said the information given to Bay Area employees confirming the paid holiday was incorrect and due to a local department misunderstanding.
"We regret, but are not surprised, that NUHW is seeking to misuse this isolated incident as a reason to disrupt mental health care as part of its bargaining strategy," Kaiser said. "In fact, NUHW leadership has called for strikes every time their contract is up for bargaining. It is especially disappointing that they are again asking our dedicated and compassionate employees to walk away from patients who need us."
However, Baez said for the past two years Kaiser has declined to finalize the paid holiday, stating that more negotiations and meetings are needed.
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Kaiser said that it has committed to adopt Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a scheduled, paid holiday across the organization beginning in 2023. This year, Kaiser Permanente will expand its MLK Day of Service to a weeklong event starting Monday, Jan. 17.
"They keep saying 'next year,' and it reminds me about how long it took for desegregation to happen," said Sabrina Chaumette, a therapist in adult psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente. "It's like they keep saying, 'The time is not right.' I would rather they spoke less about how important it is to address systemic racism and actually stop being a system that's perpetuating racism."
She said it is especially devaluing for Black mental health professionals and patients as Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been a federal holiday for nearly 40 years.
Despite meeting with management, emailing and writing letters detailing the stresses and struggles of Black clinicians, Chaumette said employees have not seen change.
A November survey of 1,500 employees with the National Union of Healthcare Workers found 62% of Kaiser's employees of color who responded have experienced racism at work, and 47% of all providers have witnessed racism.
In December, Kaiser Permanente agreed to pay $11.5 million in a settlement to more than 2,000 current and former Black employees in California who said they were underpaid and didn't receive consideration for promotions on account of racism.
As an Afro-Latina clinician, Baez said her experience at Kaiser Permanente has felt "isolating and exclusionary," mostly because she has not received extra compensation, resources or support for her leadership in developing culturally competent programming.
The demand for therapists of color is high, as more than 20% of Oakland's population is Black and many seek out clinicians who can understand their racial trauma, Chaumette said. But she said she is one of fewer than 10 providers out of around 137 who identify as Black at Kaiser Permanente's Oakland clinic, which creates an enormous burden and workload.
"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," Jessica Dominguez, the founder and lead clinician at Kaiser Permanente's Spanish-speaking program La Clínica, said in a statement.
Kaiser Permanente said it is proud of the effort from its workforce to foster diversity and responsive care, and it is dedicated to building a "highly inclusive, engaged, and psychologically safe" space.
"Meeting our long-standing commitment to provide high-quality care, improve access to care, and address the inequities, structural racism, and injustices that have marginalized our most vulnerable populations, starts with our commitment to our workforce, including those caring for the mental health needs of our members," the organization said.