Mental health workers picket for more staffing outside Fresno's Kaiser Permanente

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Mental health workers at Fresno's Kaiser Permanente Medical Center have joined a statewide five-day strike.

The mental health workers were in the middle of contract negotiations but insisted their intention was not to disrupt services. They're represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers. Workers added the action was more about under-staffing rather than a pay raise and improved benefits.

RELATED: Thousands of Kaiser Permanente mental health clinicians plan 5-day strike in California

Mental health workers started picketing outside Kaiser Permanente northeast Fresno at 6:30 in the morning. They claimed their department was woefully under-staffed so patients couldn't come in for return appointments in a timely manner.

Therapist Lynette Statham explained, "Here at Kaiser we're not able to do that. We just keeping taking new patient after new patient after new patient and it keeps us from getting people into their returns that they need and return them to wellness."

But Kaiser Permanente believed the action came at a bad time. Chief Nurse Executive Michelle Gaskill-Hames said, "The strike is a union bargaining tactic which puts patients in a difficult position during the holiday season. The union's demands are not about improving care and access."

Kaiser said it has hired therapists and increased staff by 30% since 2015. It also claimed demands by the NUHS would lessen the availability of mental health appointments.

Striking workers disagreed. About 50 local Kaiser mental health workers, including psychologists and social workers, walked and carried signs. Members of the California Nurses Association and other Kaiser employees joined in a sympathy strike.

ICU Nurse Amy Arlund said, "We are feeling the impact of the short staffing in mental healthcare services especially in our emergency room."

Workers will remain on the picket line through Friday. About 4,000 mental health workers statewide were taking part.

Kaiser indicated it would continue to provide care and health services despite the strike.
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