Kaiser Mental Health Therapists in Hawai’i Vote to Ratify Three-Year Contract after 172-day strike

Press ReleasesFebruary 21, 2023

The agreement provides raises and safeguards retirement benefits for therapists, but lacks additional measures therapists had sought to improve access to care 

HONOLULU — After walking picket lines for nearly six months in what became the longest strike by mental healthcare workers in U.S. history, therapists employed by Kaiser Permanente in Hawai’i — members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers — voted overwhelmingly Saturday to ratify a contract that improves wages without the draconian cuts Kaiser was demanding when the approximately 50 psychologists, social workers, psychiatric nurses and chemical dependency counselors went on strike August 29.

Key contract provisions include:

  • Wage increases of at least 3 percent in 2023 and 2024 and 2 percent in 2025. Prior to last week, Kaiser’s offer would have resulted in wage freezes this year for a majority of therapists.

  • Preserving pension benefits for new hires. Kaiser had previously insisted on eliminating pension benefits for new hires even though that would have made it harder to recruit more therapists.

  • An extra $1.50 per hour for bilingual therapists to help Kaiser meet the needs of non-English speakers.

“This contract is a lot better than what Kaiser was offering when we started our strike last August, but it’s still not enough to address the understaffing crisis that forces Kaiser members to wait months for mental health therapy,” said Andrea Kumura, a social worker at Kaiser’s Waipio Clinic and member of the NUHW Bargaining Committee. “I’m proud that we took a stand for patients, and I’m ready to keep fighting to make Kaiser deliver mental health care that meets the needs of its members.”

This is the first contract for the mental health therapists since they formed a union in 2018. During years of negotiations, Kaiser rejected several proposals aimed at increasing staffing and improving access to care, including a proposal that would have required Kaiser to increase hiring bonuses following years when it failed to meet its required mental health hiring benchmarks.

As Kaiser refused to consider contractual provisions to improve access to care, the giant HMO found itself under increased scrutiny from its accreditation agency. In response to a complaint filed by NUHW, the National Committee on Quality Assurance last May downgraded Kaiser’s accreditation status in Hawai’i by placing it under “corrective action” for deficiencies in providing accessible mental health care. The agency concluded that the lack of access to mental health care posed “a potential patient safety risk” and that “Kaiser’s prior efforts to improve access… have largely been ineffective.”

With Kaiser losing therapists to resignation during the strike and failing to meet its staffing requirements under its Corrective Action Plan, the largest health insurance purchaser in Hawai’i — the Hawaii Employer-Union Health Benefits Trust Fund — allowed its members with Kaiser insurance to switch carriers during the strike if they reported being unable to access timely mental health care.

Kaiser currently employs approximately 50 mental health workers to care for its 266,000 members in Hawai’i. Despite its ongoing mental health understaffing crisis, Kaiser was seeking to freeze wages and eliminate pensions when workers went on strike last August. Although workers forced Kaiser to relent on those proposals, the new contract still sets wage rates for mental health therapists in Hawai’i substantially lower than what Kaiser agreed to pay its NUHW-represented counterparts in Northern California after a 10-week strike last year. The contract in Northern California also included patient care provisions that Kaiser would not consider in Hawai’i.

“I’m excited to return to work and treat my patients, but I’m disappointed that Kaiser still devalues mental health care and treats its patients in Hawai’i as second class,” said Rachel Kaya, a psychologist for Kaiser on Maui. “I’m so grateful for our community that has supported our strike and kept us going all these months by contributing to our strike fund. Our strike is over, but our fight to make Kaiser deliver timely, accessible mental health care for the people of Hawai’i is only just beginning.”

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The National Union of Healthcare Workers is a member-led movement that represents 16,000 healthcare workers in California and Hawai’i, including more than 4,000 Kaiser mental health clinicians and medical professionals.