Santa Clara County workers rally for safety changes
A group of janitors addresses the crowd demanding better hazard pay on Friday at the Santa Clara County Government Center in San Jose. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

    Chants of “¡Ya Basta!,” Spanish for “enough already,” rang out in downtown San Jose Friday as public employees demonstrated for safety changes in the workplace.

    The workers say they’ve had enough with what they believe are poor working conditions, reduced pay and poor communication from their superiors amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “I’m a single mother and I have no financial support,” said Christine Dixon, a registered nurse at Saint Louise Regional Hospital, a county facility in Gilroy. Dixon, who’s worked for the hospital for 23 years, claimed that when the county bought Saint Louise in 2019, she lost her seniority, retirement and $8 per hour in pay. “Yet you say I’m essential.”

    Neither the county’s media office nor the office of County Executive Jeff Smith could be immediately reached for comment.

    About three dozen Santa Clara County union workers, along with elected leaders, gathered Friday morning at the Santa Clara County Government Center in San Jose. Three unions represent the workers: The County Employees Management Association (CEMA), which represents administrators who work for the county, the Registered Nurses Professional Association (RNPA) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 521, which represents service workers in the county.

    Christine Dixon, a registered nurse for the county, speaks at Friday’s rally. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

    Workers and union leaders protested what they perceived to be short staffing, low pay and lack of COVID-19 safety measures at their jobs. They say conditions are the worst in county institutions such as the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, the county Social Services Division and correctional facilities including the Main Jail Complex in San Jose, Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas, Juvenile Hall in San Jose and William F. James Boys Ranch, a juvenile probation facility.

    The rally comes as Santa Clara County is set to receive more than $300 million in federal COVID relief as part of the American Rescue Plan signed into law in March by President Joe Biden.

    Union workers hope that some of that money will go to their workplaces to increase hazard pay. They say they’ve been repeatedly denied such benefits from their superiors and the county Board of Supervisors, even as the state and the federal government have provided COVID-related funds.

    “I’d like to see the county invest those funds back into the community,” said Pho Bui, a psychiatric social worker for the county’s main jail. “They need to develop a better working community for us. Safeguards and protections in our work environment.”

    Pho Bui, a psychiatric social worker employed by the county, speaks to a member of the crowd at a Friday rally. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

    Several county jail workers have alleged that inmates slept in rat feces, and some inmates and workers have not been provided enough personal protection equipment during the pandemic, according to a San José Spotlight investigation in March.

    Juvenile Hall marriage and family therapist Iohana Tapia said she’s frustrated that the county has continued to cut services for low-wage county workers, many of whom are minorities.

    “We’re supposed to be working on ending systemic racism. How the hell are we going to do that when we’re cutting services?” Tapia asked. “In a way, the county is contributing to systemic racism.”

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Latinos make up 37.9% of all janitorial workers, and African Americans and Latinos together make up about 21% of registered nurses.

    While the workers alleged the county has done little to meet their demands for more hazard pay, San Jose Assemblymember Ash Kalra pledged Friday to do more to help local frontline workers. Kalra demanded the county invest funds back into the community and its frontline workers.

    “There’s still more we can do for public health,” Kalra told the crowd. “You take your responsibilities seriously. And we need to take our responsibility to have your back seriously.”

    Rico Mendez, chief executive officer of SEIU 521, addresses the crowd. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

    Union workers hope some of the federal funds will be used to meet their demands. Otherwise, they say, their members will continue to show up to work at understaffed jobs with less-than-adequate protection and hazard pay—something they say they’ve been dealing with for over a year.

    Allan Kamara, a registered nurse and president of the RNPA. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

    “We’ve reached out to every manager, we’ve reached out to hospital leadership, we’ve reached out to the county executives and nothing has happened,” said Allan Kamara, a registered nurse with the county and president of the local RNPA chapter.

    Union workers spoke of a spike in racial harassment at work while dealing with COVID-positive patients and long hours amid job cuts.

    “We are tired,” Kamara said onstage. “We feel like we’ve been running a marathon.”

    Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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