Workers say Santa Clara County botched transition after buying new hospitals
Workers at O'Connor Hospital say they feel disrespected by Santa Clara County, which bought the San Jose hospital and two others in Gilroy and Morgan Hill out of bankruptcy last year. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

When Santa Clara County bought three financially-struggling medical facilities last year, county officials promised nearly 1,700 workers at O’Connor Hospital in San Jose, Saint Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy and DePaul Medical Center in Morgan Hill they could keep their jobs.

But employees at O’Connor say the county reneged on that pledge as soon as it took over in March. And many describe the seven months they’ve spent working for the county as “chaos” with hundreds of workers forced to re-apply for jobs they’ve had for decades and take written tests that have little to nothing to do with their work.

Employees like Victor Rios — who has worked in the kitchen at O’Connor preparing meals for patients since 2004 — say they feel disrespected by their new employer and were blindsided when reassurances that their jobs were safe turned out to be false.

“I wish I could say I have ever felt it was the truth,” Rios said. “I wanted to be able to trust management. But I got nervous when my co-workers started taking the tests and failing. And I got really scared when they started receiving 90-days notices.”

The food service worker says his family relies on his income to survive, and living with uncertainty for so many months has become unbearable.

“Today, I am still unclear whether I will have a job next year,” Rios said. “I live with my wife, my two daughters, son and my brother-in-law’s family as well. To cover our rent, we all must work. If I lose this job, I will hurt my family’s ability to have a home.”

Other health care workers say their own health also hangs in the balance with the prospect of losing their benefits.

Bianca De La Torre is one of the O’Connor Hospital workers who says she was forced to take a test to keep her job after the county purchased the bankrupt hospital. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

“We were promised our jobs were secure and we believed them, only to find out later that this may be another false promise,” said Bianca De La Torre, a financial counselor at O’Connor. “I depend on my job to provide for my family. And as a cancer survivor, I also depend on my health insurance. It’s not easy carrying all the stress of knowing that my job depends on a test that I might not pass.”

After the county submitted the only bid for the health care facilities in a 2018 bankruptcy auction, County Executive Officer Jeff Smith said the $235 million purchase would help ease the burden at Valley Medical Center by adding more than 450 beds to the county’s health care system. At the time, Smith said VMC was running at 91% capacity in its 380-bed facility.

A county spokeswoman declined to address concerns hospital workers raised at a news conference last week. But County Supervisor Dave Cortese, who led the charge to acquire the hospitals and keep them open, said the effect the transition has had on workers is a “travesty,” adding that it is “on the administration” to live up to the county’s promises.

“The board is cracking the whip on that,” Cortese told San José Spotlight in an interview. “I think that’s what we owe those workers and that’s what we owe the community. The community wanted us to keep those hospitals open, those beds available and those workers employed.”

Cortese said he and other members of the Board of Supervisors raised questions about how the county would incorporate its new employees into the existing health care system before the acquisition — but county staff assured the board that the transition would be seamless.

“I think it is a travesty that those workers have been impacted negatively at all,” he said. “It was not how this merger was presented by the administration, it was presented as being something that would go very smoothly.”

But workers say it’s been rougher than they could have anticipated.

Jesse Kizine has been an obstetrics technician at O’Connor for more than 15 years. He works in delivery rooms assisting the doctors and nurses who help mothers give birth. When the county took over, Kizine said he was wrongly reclassified as an operating room clerk — a position that pays less money, and put him behind a desk instead of working with patients.

His status as a technician has since been restored. And Kizine says he’s happy to be working with mothers and their newborns again, but his bosses have denied his request for back-pay to make up for the county’s mistake.

“For months, I was short changed on my pay, my dignity and my ability to serve patients,” Kizine said. “Today, we still have workers at the hospital here that are misclassified and being ignored. We were made to think that this would be a priority for the county, but clearly it wasn’t.”

Contact Adam F. Hutton at afhutton.sjspotlight@gmail.com or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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