Kaiser Permanente’s mental health providers voted 1,561 to 36 to ratify a new labor contract that they said would radically improve the company’s ability to hire and retain people working in their field.

The vote officially brings the longest strike by mental health care workers in U.S. history to a close after 10 weeks, leaders of the National Union of Healthcare Workers in Northern California said in an announcement Thursday. Picketing workers endured record heat on several days of their protests.

Contract talks had restarted briefly, but labor and management couldn’t reach a deal. Then late last week, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg as a mediator entered as a mediator and managed to negotiate a contract.

Union members Jennifer Browning and Kenneth Rogers said the job action was draining but ultimately paid off. The company and union had worked out wage increases before the strike began but had reached an impasse when it came to changes that therapists wanted to improve working conditions.

“It took much longer than it should have to reach this agreement, but, in the end, we succeeded in securing important improvements in patient care that Kaiser negotiators told us across the bargaining table that they’d never agree to,” said Browning, a licensed clinical social worker for Kaiser in Roseville. “At a time when there are so few appointment cancellations because we’re seeing patients remotely, giving us enough time to perform all of our patient care duties is going to help keep a lot of us at Kaiser, and it’s going to help Kaiser hire more therapists.”

In a statement issued Friday, Kaiser management said they were pleased that the new contract was approved and that therapists had returned to work: “We appreciate our therapists’ confidence in this agreement, which addresses the concerns they expressed, while upholding Kaiser Permanente’s commitment that any agreement must protect and enhance access to mental health for our members We are glad to have all our employees back, caring for their patients.”

The four-year agreement gives Kaiser’s 2,000-plus therapists nearly two hours more each week to perform critical patient care duties, Rogers said, basically the same increase in time that the union had sought when bargaining two prior contracts.

“Patients haven’t been able to be seen because the staffing hasn’t been good, because people have been leaving KP,” said Rogers, a psychologist who practices in Elk Grove. “In making peace with the union, there’s a real opportunity for KP to start to rehabilitate its image around employee job satisfaction. ... If you don’t have enough time to do your job, you’re not going to stay with that employer. That’s the bottom line.”

Therapists now will have about seven hours a week to take care of things like responding to patient emails and voicemails, tailoring treatment plans, communicating with social service agencies or court officers, and charting appointments, the union said.

Jenny Butera, who treats patients in Kaiser’s downtown Sacramento offices, said that staffing ranks are so depleted that her clients are waiting two months between appointments.

“These are regular therapy sessions where the standard of care is you provide weekly or every other week therapy,” Butera said, “and it’s not until about 12 to 15 sessions where a person develops that therapeutic bond with the therapist and they trust the therapist and they start to work on things ... (and) would finally start to get better. At best, we could probably see a patient six times a year.”

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Kaiser to hire more therapists