A registered nurse speaks into a microphone at a rally for better pay and working conditions in San Jose.
Registered nurse Allan Kamara speaks at a nurses' rally for improved pay and working conditions at Valley Medical Center in San Jose on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. File photo.

More than 3,000 Santa Clara County nurses are at an an impasse with county officials and are headed to the picket lines over pay increases and workplace conditions.

The Registered Nurses Professional Association plans to strike from April 2-4, with members saying they’re struggling to live in the county, facing violence from patients and opposed to the county’s proposal to float nurses between hospitals. Nurses say the hospital system is too disjointed for that — contradicting county leaders’ recent claims that the system has been thriving since the 2019 purchase of St. Louise and O’Connor hospitals. County leaders said they’re facing a $250 million budget deficit and their nurses are among the highest paid in the Bay Area.

“Every hospital has different policies, procedures and cultures, and the county has done a terrible job at integrating the enterprise and it has been five years,” Susan York, registered nurse and union president, told San José Spotlight, adding the county has also ignored unsafe nurse-to-patient staffing ratios.

The announcement comes after the union rejected the most recent pay raise offer of 13% over 3 1/2 years by a mediator on March 21. The union has asked for a 15% increase over the same time frame.

Registered Nurses Professional Association warned of a strike in February, announcing 97% of its members had authorized an unfair practice strike if an agreement couldn’t be reached.

“I believe the county has proposed generous terms that reflect competitiveness with the area’s private employers and demonstrate the very best efforts to attract and retain a high quality group of high quality professional nurses,” Susan Ellenberg, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, said at a Monday emergency news conference.

County leaders said union nurses have received between 30% and 42% compounded salary increases since 2020. They argue the county offers one of the most competitive salary and benefits packages for clinical nurses in the Bay Area.

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 of San Jose. Two years ago, the county’s physicians nearly went on strike as well, sounding the alarm on worker shortages, outdated equipment and dismissive leadership.

County leaders said they’ve activated a command center to help train additional workers to stabilize the system during the strike.

“We do have an obligation to keep these critical services open so the county has moved forward with supplemental staffing, and we did this during the pandemic, but the county will be incurring over $20 million in costs to bring them in with a few days of training,” County CEO James Williams said at the news conference.

The looming strike comes at a trying time for one of California’s largest public hospital systems. In February, Regional Medical Center informed county leaders of plans to close its cardiac and stroke centers, raising questions about how the county’s other hospitals would shoulder the demand and sustain those critical services.

The county’s massive shortfall going into the 2024-25 fiscal year will force hard decisions regarding service cuts and program funding.

“I empathize with the board in having to deal with this crisis. We know the county did a lot to take care of the community during COVID. But the county did that on the very backs of the nurses,” Allan Kamara, an emergency department nurse at Valley Medical Center and former nurses union president, told San José Spotlight. “Are you going to tell me that 5% a year for nurses who protect the community will hurt this county’s budget? Come on.”

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

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