Kaiser Permanente workers to strike on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, after Kaiser breaks promise to make MLK Day a paid holiday
Hypocritical healthcare provider: Despite sponsoring The King Center’s official 2022 MLK Holiday Observance, employees are told to treat holiday like any other day.
OAKLAND — On Monday, January 17, psychologists, social workers and therapists employed at Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland and Richmond California clinics will hold a one-day strike to protest Kaiser going back on its commitment to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid holiday. Kaiser workers will picket outside Kaiser’s Oakland Medical Center beginning at 8 a.m. and march with allies and elected officials to Kaiser’s corporate headquarters in Downtown Oakland for a noontime rally.
“It was Dr. King’s persistent advocacy and determination that helped desegregate hospitals,” said Sabrina Chaumette, a social worker at Kaiser in Oakland. “For Kaiser to still refuse to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday in 2022 is disrespectful to our communities and dishonors the memory of Dr. King and his legacy. Kaiser’s executives talk a good game when it comes to social justice, but they don’t practice what they preach.”
While Kaiser honors Martin Luther King Jr. Day for some of its workers, it has refused to make it a paid holiday for all healthcare workers, including its mental health clinicians, who have repeatedly requested the King holiday for more than decade only to be rejected by Kaiser.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year, Black mental health clinicians at Kaiser’s Oakland and Richmond clinics took the lead in approaching Kaiser management about addressing structural racism within the HMO, which has resulted in many clinicians of color leaving Kaiser, further depriving patients of culturally competent care.
In response to appeals from clinicians in Oakland and Richmond, Kaiser agreed last March to make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a paid holiday for all mental health clinicians in Northern California in 2022. However, on Dec. 1, Michael Nava, Kaiser’s director of East Bay Behavioral Health, emailed clinicians, backtracking on previous commitments:
“Our management team communicated to our department that MLK was going to be a paid holiday for 2022. In our excitement, we placed all NUHW provider schedules on hold. However, we failed to confirm if it was actually finalized. Only recently we learned that it is not. There are more negotiations and meetings that need to take place with the other coalition of unions and between (The Permanente Medical Group) and (Kaiser Foundation and Hospitals.) To our understanding this is a complex process occurring much beyond the local level.”
“For Kaiser to treat Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a bureaucratic challenge rather than a moral imperative is an insult to its black workers and patients,” said Ixayanne Baez, a marriage and family therapist at Kaiser in Oakland. “Kaiser invests massive amounts of money into building its membership, but fails to properly fund and support mental health care, specifically when it comes to cultural responsiveness and the Black and Brown community.”
Kaiser’s backtracking on honoring the King holiday is already drawing national attention. In an interview this week with the Black News Channel, National Union of Healthcare Workers President Sal Rosselli said that “It’s Kaiser executives’ absolute focus on the bottom line as opposed to providing adequate mental health care,” that led it to break its promise on honoring the King holiday. “Black and brown clinicians are leaving the organization because of (Kaiser’s) resistance to working with our union to correct the structural racism problems.”
Kaiser’s broken promise is emblematic of broader concerns about structural racism within the HMO. A recent survey of more than 1,500 Kaiser employees found that 62 percent of non-white workers reported experiencing racism on the job and 37 percent of all workers surveyed reported witnessing racism toward their patients. This survey was performed in the wake of Kaiser agreeing to pay $11.5 million to more than 2,000 current and former Black employees in California who said they had been underpaid and passed over for promotions compared to their non-Black counterparts.
“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 Clínica, a program in Richmond that serves Spanish speaking residents. “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.”
The National Union of Healthcare Workers is a member-led movement representing 15,000 healthcare workers, including more than 4,000 Kaiser mental health clinicians in California and Hawaii.