After two years of stalled contract negotiations, Santa Clara County doctors say they’ve had enough.
Valley Physicians Group, a union representing 450 county-employed doctors, has submitted a strike notice this week with the intention to hit the picket line Nov. 1. More than 100 doctors and health care workers rallied in front of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (VMC) Wednesday in support of the strike.
The strike notice, approved by 93% of union members last week, comes after physicians said the county has failed to address poor working conditions in the contract. Doctors said the ongoing high caseloads—coupled with reduced resources and a burned out workforce—are hurting patient care and pushing workers to a breaking point.
Although the union and county have worked out a new salary structure, untenable working conditions have not been resolved.
“We are taking a stand today to fix these workplace issues, not just for us but for our patients,” said Dr. Steve Harris, president of Valley Physicians Group. “We are interested in averting the strike if the county will simply come to us with a reasonable proposal that meaningfully addresses our concerns. They haven’t done so for two years. Time’s up.”
Physicians want the county to decrease the patient caseload from 11 to 10 patients per half day, hire more specialist physicians and allow more time for administrative tasks such as completing paperwork and responding to emails.
The strike—unprecedented for the doctors’ union—would shut down most non-emergency and outpatient services at Santa Clara County hospitals and clinics, including the anchor facility at VMC. VMC serves some of the most vulnerable patients in Silicon Valley. Doctors are recommending patients reschedule their early November appointments.
County Executive Jeff Smith said the union’s decision to strike would harm patients who rely on VMC and 10 other clinics across the county. Santa Clara County already agreed to pay the doctors an additional $135 million over the next five years—totaling $726 million, Smith said. The county also agreed to add more support staff and resources to improve working conditions.
“That was a competitive offer,” Smith told San José Spotlight, “We can’t agree to pay more for the doctors to see fewer patients.”
Smith said the county will challenge the union’s strike through the state, calling it “illegal.”
“They have a professional duty to not abandon their patients,” said Smith, who’s also a physician. “It’s a serious thing.”
Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said she worries the strike and stalled negotiations will hurt the county’s safety net of services, which MediCal recipients, unhoused residents and the mentally ill rely on.
“I know the goal on both sides of the current negotiations is quality patient care,” Ellenberg told San José Spotlight. “My call is for all parties to get back to the table with an urgent commitment to reach a speedy resolution in the best interest of both our valuable doctors and the patients they serve.”
The remaining four county supervisors didn’t respond to inquiries or declined to comment on the strike notice.
Health care unions are required to give a 10-day notice before a strike. Union representatives said they expect the strike to last four days if the county won’t meet their demands by November.
County doctors and other health care workers have sounded the alarms over ongoing worker shortages, outdated equipment and dismissive leadership for months. Primary care doctors said their current workloads are impossible to handle, leaving them to spend only minutes with each patient. Without support staff, they have to work after their shifts and on their days off to keep up. Specialists, such as those in radiology division, are at wits’ end with substandard equipment and a backlog of hundreds of patients who spent months waiting for basic, non-invasive scanning such as MRIs and CTs.
The strike follows a survey showing roughly two-thirds of county-employed doctors don’t plan to stay at VMC. Three out of five physicians who contemplate leaving cite not being respected by county management as the reason. More than 70% of doctors said they feel worse about their jobs compared to last year.
“We are here today to demand respect, we are here today to call for better working conditions,” said Dr. Rachel Ruiz, the only full-time pediatric gastroenterologist at VMC. “We are here today to speak up for our patients who have explicitly told us that they fear that their access to health care will be taken away.”
Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.