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East Bay Kaiser Therapists Hold Strike, March on MLK Day

Mental health clinicians at Kaiser Permanente's Oakland and Richmond locations said the health care giant went back on its promise to make MLK Day a paid holiday this year

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Mental health clinicians at Kaiser Permanente's locations in Oakland and Richmond held a strike and march Monday over what they say was a rescinded promise to offer Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday.

Therapists said Sunday they were told by the health care giant they would have Martin Luther King Day off as a paid holiday, but then it was changed back to a regular workday.

"What are we saying as an agency, that we don't respect his legacy, but civil rights?" said Sabrina Chaumette.

Mental health clinicians at Kaiser Permanente Oakland location said they are going to strike after the they say healthcare giant went back on its promise to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid holiday this year. Scott Budman reports.

Chaumette, a mental health therapist at Kaiser Oakland, was among hundreds who were on strike Monday.

"This is not a selling point. When you tell somebody you don't get MLK Day but we really believe in civil rights,” she said.

Chaumette told NBC Bay Area the larger issue for her staff is the lack of therapists of color at Kaiser Oakland, especially given how many patients ask for people they will feel more comfortable opening up to. She said there are only five of them on its adult team.

"And when they walk in, they only see one provider, two providers that look like me. They wonder if it's a safe place to go," she said.

After the murder of George Floyd, Chaumette and colleagues asked Kaiser about doing more to help the mental health of patients of color. But she added that Kaiser only agreed to give them MLK Day off and then later took it back.

Kaiser Permanente released a statement Sunday acknowledging the miscommunication and disappointment, saying that "Kaiser Permanente will adopt, starting in 2023, MLK Day as a scheduled, paid holiday across the organization."

Chaumette said the one-day strike is still on.

"I’m not very trusting. If we were told in March that we were gonna get it, and then in November, we get a note saying we're not gonna get it, this could happen again next November," she said.

Kaiser also responded to the group's contention that the organization lacks diversity. Here's Kaiser Permanente's full statement:

"Kaiser Permanente knows that 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. For more than 75 years we have focused on building a highly inclusive, engaged, and psychologically safe workplace. We work to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to reach their full potential and use their diverse perspectives and strengths to support our mission and provide culturally responsive care. We take seriously when any one of our valued employees, physicians, or members feels we have fallen short of our commitments. It also reinforces our resolve and commitment to do more.

"We have acknowledged an earlier miscommunication to some employees at one local department around the MLK Day observance, in which well-intentioned but incorrect information was provided in a local department, and it was later corrected. Local leaders have apologized to employees who may have viewed the mistake as in any way conflicting with our deep commitment to equity, inclusion, and diversity.

"We are currently in contract negotiations with NUHW and think it is unfortunate that the union is using this important topic as a tactic to try to gain leverage in bargaining. 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.

"The union knows the facts around the diversity in our workforce and in the field. Amongst our mental health staff, 37% are comprised of culturally diverse professionals. A total of 8% of therapists at Kaiser Permanente are Black, while across the nation just 3% of therapists are Black, according to the American Psychological Association. Today, nearly 67% of our organization’s total workforce are members of racial, ethnic, and cultural minorities, and 75% are women. 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.

"We are investing $30 million to build a pipeline for new, culturally diverse mental health professionals across California.  More than 90% of the 2021 class in our Mental Health Scholars Academy was made up of culturally diverse candidates and 44% are bilingual, representing 7 different languages."

MLK Day as a scheduled, paid holiday

"Kaiser Permanente has celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for more than 20 years as a day of service to others in our communities. Over the years our employees and physicians have given hundreds of thousands of hours to community service, as part of this celebration. This year, we are proud to honor Dr. King and his legacy by expanding our MLK Day of Service to a weeklong event which starts Monday, January 17. It is an important commemoration for us, for our organization and for our people.

"For some time, we have been working to standardize this observance across our enterprise, comprising 8 states and the District of Columbia. We are pleased to have shared last week that Kaiser Permanente will adopt, starting in 2023, MLK Day as a scheduled, paid holiday across the organization. We understand the disappointment that this was not possible to institute in 2022 because of the many operational factors that go into planning and implementing a new paid holiday, including ensuring our members will be able to access needed care, working with our more than 60 labor unions to fulfill our bargaining obligations, and meeting our planned 2022 MLK Day volunteer commitments in our local communities.

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