Sabrina Chaumette is usually apologizing on Martin Luther King, Jr., day, but not this year.
A therapist for 14 years in Kaiser Oakland Medical Center’s adult psychiatry unit, she typically has to offer therapy appointments to her clients on the federal holiday because her employer, Kaiser Permanente, does not observe the holiday.
And, as a Black clinician in a field where there are few Black clinicians — she is one of only five in her department — she is in high demand. Where wait times are already months long, Chaumette’s patients may wait up to four months to see her.
“I always say to [patients], ‘I’m sorry, this is what I have,’” she said, “and several Black patients and allies have said, ‘How can you work on that day? How can Kaiser do that?’”
But this year, on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, 2022, she traded appointments for a picket line.
Speaking from a sidewalk a stone’s throw from her office near the Medical Center at Broadway and West MacArthur Boulevard on Monday morning, she joined more than 100 other Oakland and Richmond Kaiser Permanente mental health workers and allies to protest her employer’s decision to renege on a paid holiday they said they would allow last March.
King’s birthday has been honored as a federal holiday since 1983, and was adopted by all 50 states by 2000. Kaiser’s decision to honor it as a paid holiday in 2022 had come after years of advocacy and negotiation between Kaiser and the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents Kaiser behavioral health employees.
But an email arrived in November, stating there had been a miscommunication with Kaiser leadership, and the holiday wouldn’t be granted in 2022 after all. Instead, workers across the health consortium would get the paid holiday in 2023, they said.
“We have been working for some time to standardize observance of MLK Day across our enterprise, which includes eight states and the District of Columbia,” read a statement Kaiser shared with Mission Local on Monday.
“We have acknowledged and apologized for an earlier miscommunication to some employees at one local department around the 2022 MLK Day observance,” continued the statement, adding they had “resolved the many operational factors that go into planning and implementing a new paid holiday, including ensuring our members will have access to 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.”
Ixayanne Baez, a strike organizer and one of the five clinicians in Chaumette’s department, told Mission Local last Friday that workers had authorized the strike in response to Kaiser rescinding the 2022 holiday. Although the 2023 postponement was eventually announced, workers decided to go ahead with the strike because “we acknowledge that there are still systemic, structural racism issues,” she said, listing issues related to under-representation and retention of a workforce on par with communities they serve and lack of culturally responsive programming. “Capacity, resources … You name it.”
The Monday demonstration began as a picket line outside Kaiser Oakland Medical Center at the corner of Broadway and West MacArthur Boulevard, and the group marched down Broadway toward Kaiser Permanente headquarters in downtown Oakland, near 21st and Harrison streets, for a noon rally.
Speakers included Assemblywoman Mia Bonta, representing East Bay district 18; Janani Ramachandran, a social justice lawyer, activist and artist running for state assembly; Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers; Nate Miley, an Alameda County Supervisor; Nicki Cartuna Bass, Oakland City Council president; and Annanda Barclay, a pastor at Mission Bay Community Church.
Gerald Whitmore, a child psychologist at Kaiser for 28 years, added to the lexicon of frustration and aggravation opined by demonstrators and their allies, calling the delay in getting the holiday “troubling.”
“The reason I’m here is because of the insult from Kaiser taking this long to pay tribute to one of America’s greatest patriots,” said Whitmore. “This is the first time they’re recognizing Dr. King’s legacy and, as a Black man, I have to appreciate and honor his sacrifice.”
For Stephanie Sanders, a social worker for 22 years at Kaiser’s Pleasanton location, the demonstration and holiday was “about freedom and antiracism and speaking for the voiceless, and having a system that supports us doing that.”
A psychologist from Kaiser Walnut Creek protesting in solidarity called the lack of paid holiday “shameful,” especially for a community serving a larger Black population.
These and other mental health care workers, politicians, and community leaders criticized Kaiser for taking back their decision and called on the health consortium to re-up on antiracism work, echoing health care worker advocacy for more than, as several put it, “the bare minimum.”
Jessica Dominguez, a Kaiser Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who founded and leads the bilingual La Clínica program for culturally responsive and linguistically appropriate care for Latinx patients, explained that gestures like adopting the paid holiday and “Black Lives Matter” signage were considered “low-hanging fruit.”
As in, they were easier and more approachable first steps for Kaiser to demonstrate interest in anti-racism work as an organization. She also noted that, while the organization had taken credit for programs developed by its staff, like La Clínica, they had yet to expand the model to other locations.
Many demonstrators and allies shared a similar sentiment: the issue is much larger than a holiday, addressing longstanding health inequities that impact minorities, and which King also addressed with his activism.
At least one speaker quoted King’s assertion that, “of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman.”
“It’s because [King] fought to desegregate hospitals,” Chaumette said. She pointed out that she, a Black woman who immigrated with her family to Oakland from Haiti as a child, can even see her patients, and vice versa.
“Often, Black patients are really reluctant to come into mental health care because they’re afraid they won’t be treated with dignity and respect … they often feel dismissed in medicine,” she said. She and Baez both said they often see patients who are older and with more complex needs as a result of not being able to access appropriate care earlier.
“The way we see this and we view this current situation is parity in mental health care, for all peoples, including the Black community,” Baez added. “It’s a civil rights issue, and that is how, you know, I cannot see it differently.”