Nurses standing in their scrubs holding protest signs calling for better pay and working conditions
Nurses rally for improved pay and working conditions at Valley Medical Center in San Jose on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. File photo.

A wave of labor disputes is hitting Silicon Valley’s overburdened hospitals as health care workers reach their breaking point with pay and working conditions.

Resident physicians working in county hospitals are protesting for higher wages in front of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (VMC) Wednesday at noon amid ongoing contract negotiations. Union officials said the county has offered a 4% compounded raise over three years, with the first year seeing a 1% increase. The protest comes just weeks after county hospital nurses at VMC, O’Connor and St. Louise went on strike over salaries and objections to being floated between different hospitals, while 120 resident physicians working in Silicon Valley’s private Kaiser Permanente hospitals moved to unionize earlier this month.

VMC’s resident physicians are demanding pay that’s competitive with other hospitals in Silicon Valley, limits on what they describe as “intense back to back rotations” and extra compensation when the hospital overworks residents. The doctors are also calling for an expansion of the number of radiology residents at the hospital.

Dr. Siraj Haq, a radiology resident, said the county’s pay raise offer in the first year amounts to a pay cut when accounting for inflation.

“That was just baffling to us. We deal with community members who have the highest need. People who have no other access to care — many are coming to you for first time,” he told San José Spotlight. “When Regional shuts down services, that will increase our volumes, meaning the hospital that’s already busy and relying on residents will be pushed even further.”

Residents and interns are the lowest paid in the field, as they’re still in the process of completing post-graduate training before they can become board-certified attending physicians.

The Committee of Interns and Residents — which represents the young doctors at VMC — said resident physicians are paid the equivalent of $17.21 an hour, less than a California fast-food worker who earns $20 an hour. At the same time, the union said young physicians are carrying $200,000 in student loan debt and stretching themselves across massive staffing gaps to keep the hospital running.

County officials denied using resident physicians to fill staffing gaps and the notion that resident physicians regularly work close to 80 hours a week — as claimed by the Committee of Interns and Residents. They also denied paying residents $17.21 an hour and said the annual salary of a first-year resident is $71,606.08.

A $250 million budget deficit is driving the labor disputes between county officials and hospital workers.

“The county is in the early stages of negotiations with (the union) and looks forward to reaching agreement on a fair and sustainable contract that is fiscally responsible and competitive with other comparable hospital systems,” County Executive James Williams told San José Spotlight. “We highly value our health care professionals, including our resident physicians who represent the future of medical care.”

Hospital leaders this year have warned that VMC is already running at capacity and diverts patients to other hospitals as a result. The situation will get worse this summer, when Regional Medical Center in East San Jose closes one of the county’s only trauma units, sending a surge in additional patients to VMC and slowing ambulances across the whole system.

Protesting physicians will be joined by members of the county’s nurses and attending physicians unions, known respectively as the Registered Nurses Professional Association and Valley Physicians Group.

Last year, nurses protested staffing shortages in front of Good Samaritan Hospital, which is privately owned by HCA Healthcare. Resident and fellow physicians at Stanford Health Care unionized in 2022, the same year county physicians threatened to strike at VMC but reached a deal with the county.

“If we do not find meaningful ways to support our health care workers, then we will lose these motivated clinicians to other health systems,” Santa Clara County Board of Education Trustee Tara Sreekrishnan told San José Spotlight. Sreekrishnan, a candidate for Assembly District 26, said she is joining the protest because her brother was a resident physician at Stanford.

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

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