A young Asian woman with a medical mask hold an SEIU picket sign with Chinese characters. Other workers carrying signs can be seen walking on the city sidewalk behind her.
Workers from Asian Health Services rally for higher pay in Oakland's Chinatown. Credit: Zac Goldstein for SEIU 1021

Workers at Asian Health Services approved a new union contract on Friday after more than 300 employees last month had threatened to go on strike. The three-year contract for members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 raises wages by an average of more than 21%. 

“A lot of our staff are really thinking about staying now, which is what we wanted,” said Vicky Tan, a medical assistant at Asian Health Services. “Such a heavy feeling has been lifted.”

Workers across a range of positions, including nursing staff, mental health counselors, and medical clinic technicians, will also receive increased holiday pay, transportation reimbursements, and the addition of Juneteenth as an observed holiday. 

Founded in 1974 in a one-room clinic on Harrison Street, employees at Asian Health Services now provide a range of medical, dental, and behavioral health services for more than 50,000 patients annually.  The community health center prides itself on employing staff who speak multiple languages and serving low-income immigrants and refugees regardless of insurance status.

Like many of her coworkers, Tan works at Asian Health Services because of that mission. 

“Even when I was living in Los Angeles, I would think to myself, ‘I want to come back somehow, someway, because I still want to be able to help not just my family, but the community,” Tan, who grew up in Oakland’s Chinatown neighborhood, said. “It’s part of the reason why I and a lot of my co-workers are still with Asian Health Services.” 

But low wages combined with the increasing cost of living has made it more difficult to retain workers and recruit new ones, Tan said. Colleagues leave for higher-paying jobs and better retirement benefits, and patients are placed on months-long waitlists. 

According to SEIU 1021, patients faced waitlists of up to six months. 

“It was a culmination of all these factors that had me realize, ‘Wow, this is something that’s not just affecting my own personal work, but also the patients themselves,” Tan said. 

In a written statement, Asian Health Services chief executive officer Julia Liou said the agreement addresses staff needs while ensuring the agency can “continue to provide critical safety net services.”

“This historic agreement is a continuation of AHS‘ long record of supporting workers’ rights and unions and importantly, signifies Asian Health Services’ ongoing commitment and meaningful support of our staff,” Liou wrote. “It is a win-win for our employees and for our patients and community that relies on our

high-quality care and services.”

According to Liou, the agreement means all staff will earn a minimum of $25 an hour by July 1, 2024. 

Workers voted unanimously last month to strike if necessary. Some members also picketed in Oakland and participated in a “strike school” to learn what a successful strike would look like. 

Strikes are rare for community health centers like Asian Health Services, said Joanne Spetz, the director of the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies at UCSF. 

“For workers who are so mission-driven to feel so burned out that they are thinking of going on strike, it really tells you about how dire it is across the whole system,” said Spetz. 

Health-care workers in Oakland and across the country have faced staffing shortages and high stress for years, issues that only worsened during the pandemic. Spetz said an exodus of more experienced health-care workers makes mentoring new staff more difficult. 

Tammy Vien, a triage nurse, was surprised to see so many co-workers vote to authorize the strike and risk losing wages. Vien said staff saw the need to sacrifice for the long-term future of the organization. Language barriers can prevent Asian Americans from accessing quality care. 

“A lot of our staff speak multiple languages. It’s very difficult to hire someone that speaks that many languages,” Vien said. “Even as a certified interpreter, they’re getting paid a lot just for interpreting one language versus staff at Asian Health Services having to use three different languages.” 

Other health-care workers in the Bay Area are also organizing to improve benefits and boost pay. Workers at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland and Lifelong Medical Center went on strike earlier this year. 

Labor groups are also pushing for statewide policy changes. The California Legislature this month approved a measure that would raise the hourly minimum wage for health-care workers to $25 dollars an hour. That measure is now on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. 

“When the minimum wage goes up, turnover goes down,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center. “It is very clear and very direct: the issue here really is an issue of care quality.” 

Jacobs said health care has grown as a share of the California economy, and the share of unionized health-care workers has also increased. 

As workers at Asian Health Services are celebrating the labor win, Kaiser staff nearby are preparing for what could be the largest health-care strike in U.S. history. Tens of thousands of Kaiser workers — including thousands in Oakland — could strike next month if an agreement is not reached. 

Apple Lo, a medical clinic technician at Asian Health Services, says it’s time for agencies to address long-standing issues throughout the field. 
I really encourage those hospitals, those organizations, to pay what’s fair to their workers,” Lo said.

This story was co-published with Oakland North.