Group of striking nurses all wearing blue shirts reading #RNPASTRONG and holding signs, foreground nurse holding sign that reads" Santa Clara County Nurses for a Strong Contract"
O'Connor Hospital nurse Danielle Mahabir (wearing green vest) was at the picket line in front of her hospital on April 2, 2024. Nurses are striking for three days and asking for a pay raise and checks on a "floating" policy that allows the county to assign nurses to work at different hospitals in the system. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

Dozens of nurses filled the street in front of O’Connor Hospital in San Jose for a three-day walkout over higher wages and working conditions.

The Registered Nurses Professional Association (RNPA) went on strike yesterday and will stay out until Thursday at Santa Clara County’s three public hospitals — Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (VMC), O’Connor and St. Louise — after the union and county hit an impasse over wage increases and relocating nurses for temporary assignments to adjust for patient volume. A tentative agreement has been reached on other key terms including workplace safety, the county said in a news release.

The mediator’s proposal suggested a 13% pay raise over the next 3 1/2 years, but the union has asked for a 15% increase over the same time frame. County and RNPA leadership both claim the other party has walked away from the bargaining table. The union represents more than 3,000 nurses.

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."
One of the key sticking points, reassigning nurses to different hospitals in the system, will not work because the hospitals are too disjointed, the nurses union said. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

The other sticking point about reassigning nurses to different hospitals in the system will not work because the hospitals are too disjointed, the nurses union said. That contradicts county leaders’ recent claims that the system has been thriving since the 2019 purchase of St. Louise and O’Connor hospitals.

Milae Tol, RNPA representative and O’Connor Hospital nurse, said reassignment issues can sometimes be as fundamental as proper wound care. She said turning a patient to inspect their body and skin is different at O’Connor than VMC. VMC has a spinal cord injury ICU, and turning someone with such an injury requires a different technique.

“We had a lot of asks that we let go of because eventually, it came down to that temporary work location,” Tol told San José Spotlight. “I would need training and they really weren’t allowing us to add language like that to the proposal.”

The county has brought in about 1,000 travel nurses to continue operating the three hospitals during the strike, according to County Executive James Williams. He added that several hundred RNPA nurses have been deemed essential and will continue working during the strike. The travel nurses have cost the county more than $20 million.

“Our commitment is to minimize any impact on patient health care, that’s why we brought folks in,” Williams said at a news conference Tuesday. “We know that the services that are provided through the county health system are lifesaving essential services.”

Greta Hutchinson, a nurse who returned to O’Connor in 2021, has worked on and off at the hospital since 1995. She said having a nurse who is unfamiliar with hospital procedures and policies, such as where certain equipment is stored, can be “scary” for medical workers and patients.

“If they built up a float team and hired nurses to staff a float team, then probably we would be more open to saying, ‘Yeah hire some young people to do that,'” Hutchinson told San José Spotlight. “They get experience in different units. But if you want to take me and float me to the different units, I wouldn’t want to do it. I’d opt out.”

The county said in a news release it would provide safeguards to reassigning nurses by moving them to departments where they have been trained, and giving them the ability to decline an assignment by calling out. They would also receive an additional $50 and be placed at locations within 20 miles from their regular hospital.

The 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 will shoulder the demand and sustain those critical services.

The county’s $250 million shortfall going into the 2024-25 fiscal year will force hard decisions regarding service cuts and program funding.

County leaders have also said union nurses received between 30% and 42% compounded salary increases since 2020, but nurses said those increases were compared to 2019 salaries and not enough to match current competitive wages.

“That was just a realignment to bring us back up to 2019 levels,” Amy English, RNPA representative and O’Connor Hospital nurse, told San José Spotlight. “Meanwhile, all the nurses in the Bay Area have closed their contracts again, and they’re again well beyond us.”

Contact B. Sakura Cannestra at [email protected] or @SakuCannestra on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Comment Policy (updated 5/10/2023): Readers are required to log in through a social media or email platform to confirm authenticity. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by admin.

Leave a Reply