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May 20, 2024
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Nurses go on strike at Saint Louise, county hospitals

Thousands join work stoppage accusing Santa Clara County of unfair labor practices

Hundreds of nurses who work at Saint Louise Regional Hospital are on strike, joining the picket line with their colleagues represented by the Registered Nurses Professional Association. The healthcare workers are protesting alleged unfair labor practices exhibited by their employer, Santa Clara County. 

More than 3,750 nurses in Santa Clara County are part of the three-day strike, which includes union nurses who work at O’connor Hospital and Valley Medical Center in San Jose. The RNPA said they are striking “due to the county’s failure to bargain in good faith over working conditions and safety issues.”

The unresolved issues are also related to staffing ratios that “impact nurse well-being and patient care quality” in the county’s health system, according to the RNPA. 

RNPA members and the county have been in negotiations since their last contract expired at the end of October 2023. In February, 97% of voting RNPA members voted to authorize the current strike over alleged unfair practices. 

The strike began the morning of April 2, and is scheduled to continue until 6:59am Friday, April 5. RNPA members began picketing Tuesday morning at all three county hospital sites. 

James Mount, a registered nurse at SLRH in Gilroy, said about 120 nurses showed up to picket at SLRH the morning of April 2. About 340 nurses are employed at SLRH, and the vast majority of those have joined the strike, said Mount, who is a negotiator for the RNPA. 

“We’re letting the county know what we’re striking for (which includes) unfair labor practices they have committed during our negotiations,” Mount said. 

Both county and RNPA spokespeople have said that emergency and other essential medical services will still be available at all three hospitals during the strike. 

In a statement, the county said it “continues to negotiate in good faith with RNPA to reach a fair and competitive contract that also ensures the stability of the vital services that Santa Clara Valley Healthcare provides our community.” 

The county and RNPA have reached “tentative agreements” on some of the nurses’ terms and priority areas, said the county. Unresolved issues, from the county’s perspective, include wage increases and temporary assignments of unionized staff from one location to another. The county says such movement is important to address patient volumes and changing service needs from day to day throughout the county’s healthcare system. 

“Our health system has been working tirelessly to ensure that patient care is minimally affected by the RNPA strike, especially access to emergency and critical care services,” said County Executive James R. Williams. “We continue to invite RNPA back to the table so that we can reach a fair and sustainable contract for both sides and work together to continue providing quality healthcare for the community.”

Saint Louise Regional Hospital nurse Victoria Angelo gets her colleagues riled up April 3 during a strike at the Gilroy hospital. Photo: Michael Moore

The strike is the first in the history of the RNPA, the association said in a statement. The work stoppage will have a “major” temporary impact on most of the county’s non-emergency and outpatient services. 

“Nurses exhausted every possible option to raise patient care and working condition concerns with Santa Clara County leaders at the bargaining table,” the RNPA added. “The ability to avoid a strike was in the county’s hands, but county management refused to prioritize patient care and address the issues nurses raised with the seriousness they deserve.”

During negotiations, nurses said they called out short staffing and inadequate nurse-to-patient ratios proposed by the county. The RNPA members also pointed to a “dramatic increase” in workplace violence, as well as “troubling rates” of nurses plagued by mental health concerns—particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic. 

These and other issues, according to the RNPA, make it difficult for the county to recruit and retain nurses. The inadequate wages and benefits also make it difficult for nurses to afford to live in communities in Santa Clara County. 

The county offered wage increases to the RNPA that it can afford “without further jeopardizing our financial stability and putting critical services for the community at risk,” Williams said. 

Most recently, after weeks of mediation with RNPA, a third-party mediator presented their view of a “fair compromise” proposal that included a 13.6% wage increase, among other benefits, the county added. But the RNPA rejected that proposal. 

Other concerns

The RNPA added that after months of negotiations, the county has “failed to make sufficient investments” in resources for staff and patient safety; “ignored” staffing ratios that can be unsafe or dangerous; failed to enforce staffing standards, “resulting in unlawful unilateral action by the county;” and declined to offer pay and benefit increases that compete with those at private hospitals and other jurisdictions. 

The county claims it offers “one of the most competitive salary and benefits package(s) for clinical nurses in the Bay Area.” Since 2020, nurses represented by the RNPA (and employed by Santa Clara Valley Healthcare) have seen their salaries increase nearly 30% per year. 

The county added that its healthcare system’s turnover rate for RNs is “significantly lower” than the national rate of 18.2 percent. The county’s RN turnover rate is 8.1 percent. 

The county’s healthcare system, known as Santa Clara Valley Healthcare, includes SLRH, O’Connor Hospital, Valley Medical Center and associated clinics and doctors’ offices throughout the county. 

Michael Moore
Michael Moore
Michael Moore is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor for the Morgan Hill Times, Hollister Free Lance and Gilroy Dispatch since 2008. During that time, he has covered crime, breaking news, local government, education, entertainment and more.

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