Santa Clara County hospital execs threatened workers over striking
Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

Health care workers have filed a complaint against Santa Clara County, claiming hospital leaders intimidated and threatened them for planning to participate in a strike.

The California Public Employees Relations Board is investigating a complaint filed on Oct. 31 by SEIU Local 521. The complaint alleges Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (VMC) executives engaged in anti-union tactics and violated workers’ rights to participate in a strike organized by county doctors. The union, which represents more than 5,000 health care professionals at VMC, filed the complaint on behalf of the 58 physician assistants and psychologists at the hospital.

“Given the staffing crisis at Valley Medical Center, it is imperative that workers’ right to speak out and take concerted action be protected,” Mullissa Willette, SEIU Local 521 president, told Lucescamaray Blog.

Last month, county doctors represented by Valley Physicians Group threatened to go on an unprecedented four-day strike this month over stalled contracts and untenable working conditions. The strike was averted after the county and union reached a pending agreement in late October.

According to the complaint, VMC CEO Paul Lorenz and Chief Medical Officer Phuong Nguyen sent a letter on Oct. 25 to workers, threatening against participating in the strike. The letter said workers could be reported to the state medical board for failing to fulfill their jobs, which could result in the suspension of their licenses.

Union representatives said the letter “illegally threatened” members' medical licenses for supporting the county doctors' strike. California labor laws allow union workers to refuse to cross a picket line.

“While the county and (Valley Physicians Group) reached an agreement that averted the strike, this kind of action by Santa Clara County potentially puts all patients and the public at risk because it silences the voices of the very frontline workers that need to be heard,” Willette said.

The complaint demands VMC leaders stop threatening discipline and retaliation over union members' planned participation in the strike and to post a notice of the anti-union tactics.

Lorenz and Nguyen declined to comment through a spokesperson.

The complaint follows county doctors and health care workers sounding the alarm on ongoing worker shortages, outdated equipment and dismissive leadership in Santa Clara County's hospital system. Primary care physicians said yearslong problems such as increased workloads and decreased staffing make their jobs impossible. Without support staff, they have to work after their shifts and on their days off to keep up. Specialists, such as those in radiology, are frustrated with substandard equipment and a backlog of hundreds of patients who spend months waiting for basic scans such as MRIs and CTs. Other workers said they are doing the job of two to three people.

County doctors said some of their workload concerns have been addressed in the new contract. But for other health care professionals, the workplace culture where leadership intimidates workers and silences them is nothing new. Many spoke previously to this news organization under the condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation from hospital administration.

“The leadership has a reputation of retaliation if you ever cross or go against them,” a county doctor previously told Lucescamaray Blog, pointing to physicians who were fired or removed from their positions for being outspoken. “It's a culture of fear.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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