Nurses’ unions charge county with unfair labor practices

Lack of Covid-19 protection alleged

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Two unions representing nurses and other essential employees of Santa Clara County jointly filed a claim accusing the county of unfair labor practices that left them insufficiently protected against Covid-19.

The unfair labor practice charge was filed May 6 by the Registered Nurses Professional Association and SEIU Local 521, with the California State Employment Relations Board.

The charge details the “county’s consistent unlawful disregard to adhere to labor obligations as outlined in the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act,” reads a press release from the two unions.

Specifically, the county “unilaterally” assigned nurses, represented by the RNPA and SEIU, to skilled nursing homes with “false assurances” that they would only treat patients who were negative for Covid-19, according to the press release. The union members were also assured that they would be provided with personal protection equipment and trained how to use them.

Instead, according to the unions, “The county bypassed RNPA and SEIU Local 521 and continuously refused to provide them prior notice or opportunity to bargain over these unilateral assignments, even in the face of clear and reasonable demands by RNPA and SEIU Local 521 to meet and be provided with information, and even when presented with credible complaints from county employees that the assignments at the skilled nursing facilities exposed them to life-threatening workplace hazards.”

The unfair labor charge also accuses the county of requiring employees assigned to duties related to Covid-19 to sign a confidentiality agreement. On May 8, the SEIU Local 521 sent a cease and desist notice to the county regarding the confidentiality agreements, but was ignored, according to the union.

“Santa Clara County must work together with its employees to reach our common goal: provide essential services to residents while ensuring the safety and well-being of workers, patients and the communities we serve,” said Janet Diaz, Patient Service Clerk at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center & SEIU 521 President. “It is our belief that the County’s Labor Relations have abused their authority under the Disaster Service Act as it does not allow the county to disregard to our contract or labor laws. Now more than ever, the county should be sharing information and listening to the concerns of frontline workers.”

The charge counters the county health officer’s claim that a potential surge of Covid-19 cases could overburden the hospital system.

“California has successfully flattened, and arguably ‘crushed’ the curve, due to its proactive measures to guard against the spread of the Covid-19 virus,” reads the May 6 complaint. “There is sufficient time for the County to provide prior notice and opportunity to bargain with its unions regarding matters within the scope of representation that relate to the pandemic.”

The county has enough empty hospital beds that hospital staff could have evacuated Covid-19-positive patients from skilled nursing homes rather than assign nurses to the potentially infected facilities, the unions suggested in their charge. For example, Riverside County officials on April 8 began evacuating ill nursing home residents to local hospitals.

The RNPA and SEIU Local 521 represent about 16,000 Santa Clara County employees.

Their complaints of unfair labor practices began just weeks into the local response to the Covid-19 pandemic. On April 17, the RNPA and SEIU Local 521 filed an imminent hazard complaint with Cal/OSHA, which opened an investigation April 29.

Among the union members represented in the unfair practice charge is Patrick McMurray, a general maintenance mechanic at Valley Medical Center. He contracted Covid-19 along with at least 15 co-workers while working in the hospital’s boiler room.

“My concerns are about safety: safety for my family, my community, my health and for…my co-workers who contracted the virus, due to the county’s disregard for our safety,” McMurray said. “Why weren’t my co-workers and I provided proper PPE when management had knowledge of the Covid-19 virus spreading to our department? We’ve done everything the county has asked of us and more to protect the well-being of our residents. I asked the county to address our safety concerns with our union and ensure the proper protocols are in place to protect our workers and community.’’ 

The state’s Meyers-Milias-Brown Act regulates labor relations in government employment fields and aims to promote communication between public employers and workers.

County staff did not immediately reply to a request for comment.