Around 20 health care workers rallying on a corner in front of a health center, holding signs that say, "United for patient care."
Medical and mental health workers gather outside the West Berkeley Health Center on Tuesday morning during a daylong strike. After negotiating their first contract for over a year, the unionized workers and LifeLong management have yet to reach a deal. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Some 140 doctors, nurse practitioners, psychiatrists, and other LifeLong Medical Care providers went on strike Tuesday over conditions and pay at the organization’s clinics across the Bay Area.

The health care workers, some wearing their white lab coats, rallied outside of the West Berkeley Health Center on Sixth Street in the morning, waving signs and eliciting supportive honks from passing cars. 

“We know what our patients need—and we’re unable to provide them with what they need,” Mike Sweeney, a nurse practitioner at LifeLong’s Ashby Health Center, said. “It’s painful for us and it’s painful for our patients.”

LifeLong started in Berkeley in 1976, and now runs upwards of 20 sites and programs offering medical, dental, and behavioral health services across the East Bay and Marin County. The organization, which receives federal funding, works with underserved populations, including low-income, homeless, undocumented, and elderly patients. LifeLong has around 1,157 employees and a $100 million annual budget.

Unhoused clients of LifeLong have often spoken highly about the services they’ve received from the organization, often through its downtown Oakland Trust Health Center, which is contracted with Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless.

“Providers come to LifeLong because we believe in the mission to provide to the communities most in need,” said Sweeney, who is also on LifeLong’s street medicine team. “We expect to take a pay cut to some extent. People are willing to make that sacrifice, but not to make that sacrifice and be worked so, so hard.”

LifeLong providers, who unionized with the Union of American Physicians & Dentists (UAPD) two years ago, have been in negotiations with the nonprofit’s leadership over their first contract for more than a year. The providers want more time for administrative work, more say in the organization’s decisions, sabbaticals, access to mental health care, and transparent wages and pay increases. 

A band of older musicians belt out songs and strum guitars on the sidewalk.
Musicians play protest songs to rally the crowd of workers at the Berkeley strike event on Tuesday. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The staff accuses LifeLong management of not seriously considering these proposals. A federal mediator was brought in last week, a move that both sides can choose to make when they can’t reach an agreement.

“Despite our best efforts to negotiate in good faith, UAPD has chosen to strike,” said LifeLong Deputy Director Luncinda Bazile in a statement. 

She said the one-day work stoppage “will impact the care of approximately 1,000 patients and will negatively impact LifeLong during an already challenging fiscal time.”

Bazile declined a request for a follow-up interview about the specific claims made by providers, citing ongoing negotiations. 

Douglas Frey, a nurse practitioner at the downtown Oakland center, said that management is “dissociated from what happens at clinics.”

He said the standard 15 minutes allotted for each appointment is far less than what’s needed to establish relationships with patients, who typically come seeking treatment for multiple issues at once. On top of that, many of LifeLong’s patients lack consistent transportation or phone access and often show up to appointments late.

A couple of weeks ago, after a colleague left her job, Frey said he started receiving requests for refills and messages from patients he’d never heard of. According to Frey, he found out he’d been assigned 692 new patients she’d been seeing.

“It’s totally unsafe,” said Frey, who’s on the bargaining team and has worked at LifeLong for 11 years. “It’s a massive increase in an already overwhelming workload. Every one of those patients I need to spend time getting to know.”

A middle-aged man with a serious expression wears a union button and stands in front of the West Berkeley Health Center.
Nurse practitioner Douglas Frey, who’s worked for LifeLong for 11 years, said he was given more than 600 new patients this month on top of an already large workload. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

He also said that as LifeLong has rapidly expanded, providers like him have lost autonomy in how they handle scheduling. Frey has been recognized for innovation around hypertension treatment, creating micro-visits focused only on blood pressure checks. He said he’s since lost the ability to do that work, causing the blood pressure control rate among the center’s patients to drop significantly.

Rachel Flores, organizing director with UAPD, said the health care workers everywhere are experiencing similar conditions.

Across the units represented by UAPD, including physicians in state and prison hospitals, and healthcare workers with California counties like San Francisco, “the issues are the same,” Flores said. “Short-staffing, patient loads, pay disparities.”

At the rally Tuesday, Valorie Kolovos, a LifeLong nurse practitioner at skilled nursing facilities, said, “There’s an element of disappointment that we had to be here and couldn’t have had fruitful negotiations.” She said competitive pay is the demand that resonates with her the most, noting that providers aren’t paid when they’re on strike.

The staff is planning to return to work Wednesday.

“We’re trying to be careful with the impact we’re having, first and foremost on patients and the community,” Sweeney said. But he said it seemed like “the only thing that has gotten management to come back to the table was a strike threat,” noting that another could be in the cards.

“LifeLong remains committed to negotiating in good faith and hopes that we can soon come to an agreement,” said Bazile in her statement. The next mediation session is July 5.

Correction: LifeLong reassigned 692 patients — not 644, as previously stated — to Douglas Frey, according to the nurse practitioner.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...