Santa Clara County nurses rally over pay, working conditions
Nurses rally for improved pay and working conditions at Valley Medical Center in San Jose on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. Photo by Joseph Geha.

Santa Clara County nurses are rallying at Valley Medical Center in an effort to bring renewed attention to familiar concerns including pay, working conditions and patient care standards.

About 100 nurses and other health care workers gathered Wednesday afternoon at the hospital courtyard, holding signs, yelling chants and calling on county leaders to meet their demands or face a potential strike.

The demonstration comes more than three months after a contract with the county expired for nearly 4,000 nurses working in hospitals, clinics, jails and other facilities across the the Santa Clara County Health and Hospital System. The workers are represented by the Registered Nurses Professional Association.

The group has voted to authorize a strike in the coming weeks as frustrations are mounting in negotiations, including impasses around nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, patient violence against nurses and compensation and benefit packages.

“We feel the county has ignored these issues,” Maybelline Que, a VMC nurse and a vice president of the nurses association, told San José Spotlight. “We are using our voices to continue to amplify what we’re asking for to the public, so we can get the community to know what we’re fighting for.”

The nurses union says the county health system is having trouble recruiting and retaining nurses because pay and benefit packages are 10% to 20% behind the competitive market, sending skilled nurses to other hospitals such as Stanford, Kaiser and Regional Medical Center.

The county said the safety of its nurses and patient care are top priorities.

“The safety and well-being of our nurses, and our entire workforce, is essential for the county health system to deliver high quality and safe care to our patients,” a spokesperson told San José Spotlight. “The county will continue to work towards a fair and competitive contract that will allow us to maintain essential health care services for our community.”

Que said county management is also pushing to shift internal practices that could increase the number of patients each nurse cares for, including in critical settings, such as in the hospital’s respiratory rehabilitation unit, where ventilator-dependent patients need round-the-clock care.

“It’s just not safe for patient care to add to those rehab nurses’ workload, because they do so much for patients already,” she said. “It’s going to have detrimental effects on our patients and quality patient care is going to suffer and that’s what we don’t want.”

Nurses listen as registered nurse Allan Kamara speaks at a rally for improved pay and working conditions at Valley Medical Center in San Jose on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. Photo by Joseph Geha.

Que said 97% of nurses in the union support a strike if needed. She said nurses care about patients and the union considers striking its last resort.

“But if the county leaves us no choice we are going to be forced to stand our ground and stick up for our patients and our nurses by going on strike,” she said.

Susie York, president of the nurses union, said she and her colleagues are concerned that as private hospital Regional Medical Center in East San Jose recently announced it plans to shut its trauma center in August, and begins scaling back its stroke services, the pressure will only build on nurses at county hospitals.

Ensuring nurses are paid competitively and are not stretched thinner than they already are to keep patient care quality up will be more critical going forward.

York said the county’s latest offer for pay was to increase wages by 7% over three years, while in their latest ask, nurses have pushed for 18.5% over the same time frame. She said the nurses are also looking to see stronger protective language in the contract for nurses who are sometimes subject to violence and verbal abuse from patients, along with other demands like metal detectors in emergency departments.

York said the rally is important to show the county nurses aren’t bluffing.

“We’re out here showing strength in numbers, and showing our power, that if we had to strike we would,” York said.

The county, in a statement, said nurses have received nearly 30% in total compounded wage increases for nurses since 2020, and said its total compensation, including benefits, for nurses in the role of “Clinical Nurse III” are the second highest out of comparable regional hospitals in a survey it commissioned. More than half of the registered nurses working in the county are classified as Clinical Nurse III, the county said.

Christabel McGlone, a registered nurse in the labor and delivery department at St. Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy, said she think a strike is needed soon, otherwise no progress will be made.

“I think we do need to take this step, I’m ready for it. I just feel like the county is not taking us seriously,” McGlone told San José Spotlight. “They are not hearing any of the concerns of anybody, no matter what department you work. I think they just figure we’re all bark and no bite, to be honest.”

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