Group of striking nurses wearing blue shirts reading #RNPASTRONG and holding signs while walking across the street. Signs read "Santa Clara County Nurses for a Strong Contract", "Willing to strike for my patients", and "RNPA Protect us, Pay us, Respect us."
Santa Clara County nurses went on strike for three days earlier this month, and may do so again as contract negotiations with the county break down. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

Thousands of nurses across Santa Clara County’s strained and overburdened public hospital system may go on strike again — just weeks after taking to the picket line.

Contract negotiations between county management and leaders with the Registered Nurses Professional Association have stalled, with a Thursday bargaining session lasting just 17 minutes. A looming $250 million budget deficit is driving a wedge between both sides on pay raises. The county is proposing 10.5% compounded increases over the next three years, while the nurses want 15% under the same terms. Nurses are also calling for safer staffing levels and oppose being floated between hospitals.

The failure of Thursday’s bargaining talks took the county’s 13% pay increase proposed by the mediator off the table.

“The county’s official position remains far worse than the mediator’s proposal that our members already rejected,” Susan York, president of the nurses union, told San José Spotlight.

The breakdown in negotiations follow a three-day nurses strike earlier this month — the first in the union’s 45-year history — which forced the county to spend more than $20 million on traveling nurses to keep hospitals operating.

Nurses say another walkout is on the table, while county officials say that could push health care funds deeper into the red and force them to make cuts — just months before the planned closure of East San Jose’s only trauma unit at Regional Medical Center. The closure is expected to cause a surge in mostly low-income patients to the county’s other, already full public hospitals.

“We’re facing significant pressures in the health system on many fronts. Regional will exacerbate that quite significantly, and we’re not seeing revenues keep pace. That’s a serious concern,” County Executive James Williams told San José Spotlight.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors will discuss the ramifications of losing services at Regional on Tuesday, in addition to approving pay for the traveling nurses hired during the strike.

Williams said while he hopes the nurses don’t strike again, in negotiations the county needs to look at what is sustainable.

“We have to ensure that we have a contract that’s fair to our nurses and maintains competitive wages and benefits, that’s also fair to the rest of our employees and ensures there is continued access to the services the public relies on for vital health and safety needs,” Williams said.

Another point of dispute between the union and county management is the county’s proposal to float nurses between different hospitals. The nurses say the hospitals’ different policies are too disjointed for that. Williams said it’s meant to respond to unpredictable patient volumes, and that a recent mediator proposal included a joint labor management committee focused on boosting integration across the health system.

Union leaders said the county overspent and overstaffed on temporary nurses during the strike, with travel nurses waiting around in conference rooms for assignments with two nurses to one patient, when they said staffing ratios are typically 5-to-1.

“Ironically, during the strike was the one time county leaders saw fit to provide safe staffing,” York told San José Spotlight. “As we return to the bargaining table, aiming to avoid another strike, we hope the county learns this valuable lesson. It is better, and less expensive, for everyone when they cooperate with nurses rather than disrespect us. “

Williams said the door is open.

“We’re available to meet any time (the union) would like,” Williams said. “There is not a currently scheduled next session, but we will always make ourselves available.”

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter. 

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