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County hospitals struggle to serve patients with no contract, shrinking staff

Santa Clara County hospitals remain inundated by short staffing and lack of incentives to keep workers in the county’s healthcare offices and departments, disgruntled union employees said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

County workers with Service Employees International Union Local 521 held a news conference at noon Tuesday outside the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center emergency room in San Jose.

SEIU Local 521 employees have been without new contracts since June and have demanded the county address short staffing in government offices throughout the South Bay to no avail.

Janet Diaz, SEIU Local 521 chapter president, said Tuesday:

“This is unacceptable.”

The union authorized and executed strikes throughout the county last year following the previous contract expiration. While strikes have ceased, a new contract for county workers has not been ratified and the union says it has kept local residents from receiving timely and quality health care.

Diaz said:

“Rather than tackling patient health risk head-on and reaching an agreement, increasing staff (and) recruiting with incentives to retain, the county’s bargaining team continues to delay any possible settlements, placing more residents at risk.”

She added that wait times for patients at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose “are well above the state and national averages,” with patients waiting several hours before being admitted for care.

The county parried that assumption of wait times in a statement Tuesday that said patients in the emergency room wait 15 minutes on average to be seen by a doctor.

Through Laurel Anderson, a spokeswoman at the county executive’s office, the county said:

“Due to the busy flu season that is one of the worst in years, there has been a pronounced increase in patients coming to the Emergency Department, which in turn increases the number of inpatient admissions.”

And while the flu season has brought many to the county’s hospitals to seek care, the county maintains that it’s the seasonal sickness that plagues extended waiting lists, and not a lack of staff.

Anderson said:

“When inpatient admissions increase, there are fewer beds available for admitting new patients.”

Anderson continued:

“This results in patients being held and cared for by the (Emergency Department) staff and doctors until a bed becomes available. This situation is due to a higher inpatient volume as a result of the flu season and in not related to any staffing issues.”

SEIU Local 521/Facebook Santa Clara County, Calif. health workers are on strike for a fifth day Monday, October 7, 2019.

But county workers beg to differ – including Maria Felix, a hospital worker at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose for the last 22 years. She said she brought her father to the emergency room last year and he didn’t receive care until a day later.

Felix said:

“The short staffing impacts how we do our job as (hospital workers), how we provide the care and the response for the patient is a lot longer.”

She said that different hospital departments are borrowing workers from other departments to cover understaffed positions that are either vacant or unscheduled.

Monique Puga, who transports patients between rooms to switch beds or see a different department, said Tuesday:

“(T)urnover has become the norm, not just in transport but in our entire (Santa Clara Valley Medical Center).”

Puga added:

“When I first started four years ago, there was nine of us that got hired at the same time.”

“Two of us are remaining at transport.”

She also said she has not had a new co-worker to fill any of the vacant positions in at least a year, leaving just her and another co-worker in charge of what was once a nine-worker-strong department.

She said recently, a mother who had just given birth awaited transfer to a post-delivery bed for over an hour because no one was available to move her to another room in the same department on the same floor.

Puga said:

“Everybody keeps transferring out.”

“The short staffing is just wearing us down.”

Though the county and SEIU Local 521 have been in negotiations for eight months over new contracts, the two parties have not reached a final agreement.

Puga said:

“We cannot and should not allow our patients to experience these high wait times, especially when the county has an opportunity to address the shortages by settling our contract and investing to keep our workers here.”

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