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Calif. hospital nurses strike as county officials spend over $20M on contract nurses

Nurses in Santa Clara County picketed at Valley Medical Center and O’Connor Hospital in San Jose and St. Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy


Registered Nurse Rocio Rojas takes part in a strike at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center on Tuesday, April 2, 2024, in San Jose, Calif. Health care workers are holding a three day strike at medical facility.

Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group

By Grace Hase
Bay Area News Group

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Santa Clara County nurses donning cobalt blue shirts with their union logo rang cow bells and waved signs calling for a fair contract in front of Valley Medical Center on Tuesday morning as they entered the first day of a three-day strike.

The nurses, who are members of the Registered Nurses Professional Association, embarked on the union’s first-ever strike as negotiations with the county have reached an impasse over wage increases and working conditions.

“We just want completive wages so we feel respected,” said Jennifer Hughes, who has been a registered nurse at Valley Medical Center for the last 11 years. “We just want to feel safe and want our patients to be safe.”

The nurses association represents more than 3,750 nurses in the Santa Clara Valley Healthcare system, which is California’s second-largest county-owned health and hospital system and has one million patient visits annually. Nurses are picketing this week at the system’s three main hospitals: Valley Medical Center and O’Connor Hospital in San Jose and St. Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy.

Alyssa Dulong, who has worked at Valley Medical Center for 11 years and with the county for 29 years, said nurses are concerned about changes the county wants to make in determining how sick a patient is. The sicker a patient is, the more likely they are to get more focused care.

“If we have to take care of more patients that are sicker that should have more of our attention, that’s not safe for them and that’s not safe for us,” Dulong said.

The nurses have been without a contract since October and are asking the county for a 15% wage increase through October 2025 that’s 5% annually and starts retroactive to their contract’s expiration date. The last proposal that the union rejected was put together by a third-party mediator in late March and offered the nurses a 13% raise between now and October 2026, with 3% at ratification, 4% in October 2024, another 4% in October 2025 and 2% in October 2026.

With so many nurses on strike, the county has had to spend more than $20 million to cover the gap and bring in nearly 1,000 contract nurses to work around-the-clock shifts across the three-day strike, according to County Executive James Williams.

“We have to first maintain these critical operations for the community that’s why we’re so disappointed that RNPA so quickly rejected the mediator’s proposal before announcing a strike,” Williams said during a news conference. “We were hopeful that that proposal, which in our view represented a very fair offer, would have been accepted by RNPA. Unfortunately, now we have to take money and put it towards this essential coverage.”

Williams said that could end up impacting the budget for the upcoming fiscal year — especially in light of the county projecting a $250 million deficit.

During the strike, all three hospitals and clinics will remain open, but county officials said that some elective surgeries and non-urgent appointments have been rescheduled. But Williams said that on Friday some nurses at Valley Medical Center participated in an “illegal sickout” that forced them to temporarily close San Jose’s only level one trauma center.

County officials said Valley Medical Center was unable to accept ambulances with trauma patients for 2 hours and 11 minutes on Friday after nearly all operating room nurses called in sick. During that time, the county said a two-year-old child from Gilroy suffered a “very serious trauma injury.”

Valley Medical Center is one of two pediatric trauma centers in the county, and with it being closed, the county said the child had to be transported to Stanford by ambulance, which took 50 minutes.

The county could not provide any other details, but said the child survived.

In a statement to The Mercury News on the incident, Williams said it’s “critically important” that Valley Medical Center’s level one trauma center remain open.

“We support our employees’ right to engage in lawful union activities including planned and properly noticed strikes,” he said. “Unlike a planned strike, sickouts are unlawful, precisely because they can jeopardize health and safety, and the county absolutely will not tolerate actions by employees that place patient care or the community at risk.”

Susie York, the president of the nurses association, said in a statement that “RNPA was not involved in the decision of some nurses to call in sick on Friday, or aware of it happening until after it occurred.”

“Of course, nurses can point to patient care issues that happen day after day due to under-staffing and other poor management,” she said. “The county does not seem as interested in publicizing those though.”

For the family members of patients in the Santa Clara Valley Healthcare system, concerns around the strike were already mounting by Tuesday afternoon.

Tearria Ruffin and Pam Reynolds were visiting their loved one at O’ Connor Hospital with balloons in hand after flying in from out of town earlier this week.

“I was just concerned with what’s going to happen or are they just discharging her fully because there’s not enough staff,” Ruffin said of her reaction when she learned that nurses at the hospital where her mom is receiving care are striking.

Even before the strike started Reynolds said she was concerned as her sister’s dialysis was scheduled Monday morning but ended up not happening until late into the evening.

“We just hope it gets taken care of,” she said. “I understand the workers also. I feel like this must be a big enough stand to take if they did this like this and that’s concerning.”

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