The workers charged with keeping critical medical equipment online at a Santa Clara County-owned hospital are about to be out of the job—and hospital staff fear patients could pay the price.
The 17 engineers at O’Connor Hospital in San Jose are members of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 39. But last month, they learned their positions will be replaced with workers from Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 521—the public-sector powerhouse whose membership includes roughly 40,000 city, county and nonprofit workers. The county has been urging the engineers to join SEIU for years, but they have declined, saying their existing contract gives them better benefits than what SEIU could offer. Now the county is forcing the issue, and has said it will stop working with the engineers on Sept. 30.
At the end of the month, some O’Connor engineers are choosing to retire. Others have accepted job offers elsewhere. The rest plan to simply walk away.
A Santa Clara County spokesperson confirmed to San José Spotlight that the contract will conclude at the end of the month and reiterated that engineers could apply for SEIU jobs if they chose.
San José Spotlight spoke to 10 current and former employees of county hospitals, including five engineers from O’Connor Hospital. Their names are being withheld out of fear of retaliation from current or former employers and SEIU leadership.
Each person echoed the same concerns. Once the IUOE engineers leave O’Connor, the hospital will lose the institutional knowledge required to keep its buildings safe and its medical equipment functional. The new SEIU engineers will face a razor-sharp learning curve that could slow down day-to-day operations. Any mistakes could cause life-support systems to fail, with devastating consequences.
County Executive James Williams told San José Spotlight the engineering jobs will go to SEIU to comply with the county’s contract, which allows for outside contractors only in “exigent circumstances.”
“With the acquisition, there needed to be a transition,” he said.
Behind the scenes
O’Connor, like the county’s other hospitals—Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and St. Louise Regional—employs two main types of engineers. Stationary engineers are the mechanics for the building’s HVAC and electrical systems, but they also manage the flow of gasses like oxygen and nitrous oxide, and maintain the boiler that makes steam for sterilization. Biomedical technicians repair and maintain devices like ventilators, heart pumps and imaging machines.
“You never think about everything that happens behind the scenes,” an administrative employee at O’Connor familiar with the engineers’ work told San José Spotlight. “That’s what this (job) is, it’s a behind-the-scenes thing.”
O’Connor Hospital, first established more than a century ago, was one of three facilities bought by Santa Clara County in 2018, along with Gilroy’s St. Louise Regional Hospital and the De Paul Health Center in Morgan Hill. The $235-million purchase added some 450 beds to the county’s health system—a dramatic expansion meant to take some strain from Valley Medical Center, the county’s main hospital, with 380 beds.
The county took over management of the hospitals in March 2019. The handoff was “chaos,” hospital staff told San José Spotlight at the time. Despite the county’s assurances, many longtime employees were left in a lurch regarding job security and health benefits months after the formal change of ownership.
It’s a pattern that would repeat itself for the engineers. At the time of the buyout, Santa Clara County had a contract with SEIU Local 521 for its hospital personnel, meaning the engineers would need to join SEIU or leave. But the IUOE contract offered better pay and benefits, the engineers said—so they were reluctant to switch unions. The county then struggled to find qualified SEIU replacements, and amid the uncertainty, some engineers preemptively quit.
A spokesperson for SEIU Local 521 did not respond to a list of questions provided by San José Spotlight about the engineers or comment further.
That summer, with weeks to go before the formal handoff, the county struck a deal to keep the remaining engineers on the job. They wouldn’t be employed by the county directly, but would instead be hired as contractors through an engineering firm, ABM, which is unionized with IUOE. The move was meant as a temporary arrangement to let the engineers keep working without running afoul of existing SEIU agreements.
The county’s first contract with ABM began in October 2019. Eighteen months later, the county extended it on a short-term basis. Then kept extending it—six months here, three months there—until abruptly this fall when things changed again for the IUOE engineers.
Lower standards, high stakes
This May, St. Louise Regional Hospital went through a similar transition. Most of the 11 IUOE engineers at St. Louise had left by then, but three stayed on and made the switch to SEIU.
An engineer who stayed at St. Louise said most of the new engineers brought in by SEIU had no experience working in hospitals and weren’t used to making repairs around vulnerable patients, a key aspect of the job. The remaining engineers from the IUOE crew had to make up the slack, they said.
“We’re working with systems that potentially could be harmful to patients, to nurses—to any personnel in the hospital,” the St. Louise engineer said. “The standard of an engineer working in a hospital setting has to be a lot (higher).”
The Santa Clara County spokesperson told San José Spotlight that “the expectation is to have most, if not all” jobs at O’Connor filled by SEIU engineers by the end of September. But staff at O’Connor say they haven’t seen replacement engineers being trained, or any evidence to suggest there will be a new team ready when the transition officially happens.
A medical staffer at O’Connor who’s a member of SEIU told San José Spotlight that SEIU leaders have not taken workers’ fears about losing the engineers seriously. This person wasn’t sure why so much attention had been paid to getting the engineers to switch unions, and expressed concerns about whether the medical equipment they rely on will be maintained correctly once the IUOE engineers leave.
“As much as we love our biomed engineers and our (stationary) engineers, (SEIU) is huge, and they’ll win out,” the SEIU member said. “We don’t want them to, and it’s a patient safety, quality and standards issue. That’s the problem. … They don’t seem to care about our patients.”
IUOE gives its engineers extensive training on how to work with hazards like medical gasses. It’s unclear, the IUOE engineers say, how the SEIU workers could be prepared for their new responsibilities without learning those critical skills.
“There’s no way the county would be able to match” that training, one former IUOE engineer said.
In 2022, a PG&E outage hit San Jose, knocking power out for hospitals across the city. O’Connor Hospital’s backup generator, maintained by the IUOE stationary engineers, kept the lights on.
Without an experienced engineering team, O’Connor workers fear their hospital could’ve remained mired in darkness. One said they’re worried about the hospital “falling apart” in the coming months.
“I’m really scared,” they told San José Spotlight. “Even if they get (new engineers) in here by Oct. 1, which is going to be really iffy … there’s nobody to train them.”
Contact Graph Massara at [email protected].