A Healthcare Worker’s Fight for Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Sabrina Chaumette is an Oakland, CA resident and a licensed clinical social worker and a member of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) at Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center. The past half dozen years has been the scene of a war between the California HMO behemoth and its clinical health care workers. There have been strikes and threats of strikes, contract fights and contract rejections; last summer’s open-ended strike lasted ten weeks; NUHW won an array of major concessions, above all on staffing and scheduling, including MLK Jr. Day off with pay.
Chaumette has been at Kaiser 14 years. And she has been through it all, but one issue has been especially important to her. Martin Luther King’s birthday has been a national holiday since 1986 but here in California thousands of health care workers have not had the day off, let alone with pay.
Two years ago, Kaiser told its staff that it would include MLK’s birthday as a paid holiday in its next contract, 2022, only soon to retreat on the issue, saying it was not yet the right time. In response, clinicians at Kaiser’s medical centers in Oakland and Richmond threatened to strike. Kaiser again promised to act on the holiday. The therapists angered by the first promise broken decided to stike anyway, walking off the job on MLK’s birthday, 2022, forcing Kaiser’s hand.
The drive to make Kaiser recognize the King Holiday was spearheaded by NUHW’s Racial Justice & Equity Committee, where therapists made recognizing Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday a top priority for addressing structural racism within Kaiser.
Why is the holiday so important to Chaumette? Why did Chaumette and her colleagues strike Kaiser, a giant corporation with an ill-deserved liberal reputation? Here are her answers.
I always worked MLK Day because the way Kaiser handled MLK Day was unlike other holidays. In order to have it off, you had to spend the day doing community service somewhere. You’re not required to do service for Christmas Day or New Year’s Day or Thanksgiving.
As a Black mental health therapist at Kaiser Permanente, I’ve always felt ashamed when I’d offer my Black patients an appointment on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. They’ll ask me why I’m working, and when I tell them that it’s not a paid holiday at Kaiser, they’ll ask, “How can Kaiser do that? Doesn’t the organization know this is important?”
So, a patient choosing to delay an intake order to see a Black clinician is likely to be influenced by the mistrust of the mental health system which has a history of not treating Black patients in a culturally relevant manner. For example, not acknowledging the way systemic racism, the history of segregation, red lining, police over patrolling Black communities might leave them very guarded about entering a large mental health system in an inner- city clinic which doesn’t have enough providers who look like their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.
As a Black mental health therapist, I have to navigate my own experiences of racism while bearing the brunt of holding my community’s collective trauma. It’s a responsibility I cherish. But it’s also a difficult burden to shoulder. I had anxiety attacks when our team lost a Black therapist. But I knew they truly had to go because they had done the best they could, and they couldn’t do it anymore. They had to take care of themselves. I do everything I can to help my patients. I come in early, stay late, book them when I should be doing my paperwork or give them five minutes of phone coaching — anything to help them feel connected to me. But it’s a terrible burden knowing that you can’t provide your patients the care they need.
That’s why following the murder of George Floyd, my colleagues in Oakland and Richmond reached out to Kaiser management about finally taking action to address structural racism and help support clinicians of color and provide better mental health care to patients of color.
The only thing Kaiser executives agreed to do was finally make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid holiday for mental health clinicians in 2022. And then most of the year goes by and around November 2021 leadership sent a message saying they made a mistake — that they hadn’t had permission to make it final yet. And so, all these months we had been believing we were going to get MLK day off. If the chief tells you that you have MLK Day off, that’s not gossip. It felt like this was another way of feeling dismissed.
I cried in a staff meeting when I got the news. It felt like a slap in the face to the community we serve and to us as Black health care professionals. It’s a decision that tells Kaiser’s patients and
its employees that we’re not going to honor Black lives — that everything Kaiser says about racial justice is just lip service.
Part of King’s legacy is the work he did to desegregate our hospitals and our health care. At a news conference in 1966, in connection to the annual meeting of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, he noted, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman.”
Those of us who provide mental health services for Kaiser in Oakland and Richmond decided we wouldn’t be working on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2022. We’d be striking — not only because Kaiser went back on its word to finally make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a paid holiday for us, but because Kaiser still refuses to address structural racism and work with us to provide appropriate care for all marginalized communities. In Oakland, a city where 1 in 4 people is Black, Kaiser has only five Black mental health therapists on its adult team. Even though we provide mental health care, it feels like we’re the MASH unit.
With them taking it back, I just felt it was too much. They kept asking us to apologize for their insensitivity to the community. It just seemed like a strike was the right thing to do. Kaiser CEO Greg Adams then sent an email to workers announcing that Kaiser will finally make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid holiday for all Kaiser employees — but not until 2023, nearly 40 years after it became a federal holiday and more than a decade after our union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, first requested it.
It’s hard to believe that Kaiser would have taken that action if we hadn’t already announced that we were striking on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And, it’s hard for us to believe that Kaiser will take any significant steps to improve conditions for therapists and patients of color if we don’t keep up the pressure.
I feel proud because no one in my community can say I didn’t stand for something. I believe we did that as a union group, because I didn’t trust that Kaiser wouldn’t have come back and said “we’re not ready yet for 2023.”
When I talked with other Black clinicians about what they are planning to do on MLK Day [last month, January 2023], they said they plan to rest. As I think about it now, because we deal with so much trauma from our community, rest is necessary. We have a large caseload of people who specifically want to work with us — so our burden is very heavy. We are tired and there are too few of us to carry as many patients as we try to serve.
We want to serve them because what happens to them could happen to us, to me. I am the mother of three adult sons. When they leave the house, I try not to think too hard about them and their travels. It is my greatest fear that they will get profiled and not come home.
When they were teens, we practiced how to get stopped by the police. I hated taking their innocence away. But I had to keep them alive. So do the parents I serve. After a police shooting, most of the trauma work I am doing is with Black parents who worry about their children leaving the house. They are almost stuck with fear. This is a trauma response. They too are trying to tell their children how to stay alive and it is awful that we have to do this. This is what is so heartbreaking about my work and why this MLK Day is a day to rest, so that on Tuesday I can keep showing up.
So, on MLK Day 2022 we struck. It was a wonderful collective feeling to walk together with people because you all believe in something and you’re doing it as a community and you all believe it’s right, even though you know that it comes at a cost to you. You’re there without pay, and you have to reschedule your patients. But when I believe in something and it feels moral – for me there’s nothing else to do.
I think it got stronger with the people who went out on strike because they believed in what we were doing and it was in solidarity. Even though I was one of only three Black clinicians in Oakland, there were all these people who were allies that showed up for me, and they didn’t have to. They showed up for me and they showed up for their clients.
On Monday, January 16, 2023 all Kaiser employees, for the first time, received Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday.
This interview has been adapted from an op ed and an interview. Also see “Voices from the Picket Line.“
The NUHW is a new union. Starting from scratch in 2009, it now has 16,000 members in hospitals and clinics from Eureka to San Diego. This month, Black History month, it’s website honors Black Change Makers: see NUHW statement on Black History Month, “Celebrating Black History,” NUHW.org.:
“Our movement is rooted in the ongoing shared struggle for equal rights and full equality. And, our work will never be complete until we create an anti-racist healthcare system that fully supports caregivers and patients of color and provides all patients with culturally-responsive care.
“NUHW would not exist without the hard work and sacrifices of Black and Brown members and the inspiration that we all draw from the civil rights leaders of the past and present. We honor the lives and the legacies of those who came before us and stand out among us, and we welcome you to support and get to know their work.”