California county settles with physicians over alleged threats

Santa Clara County in California and Valley Physicians Group, a union that represents more than 450 physicians in the county's health system, have settled the pending unfair labor practice charge VPG filed with the California Public Employee Relations Board alleging that hospital leaders threatened union members against striking last year.

The complaint, which the parties settled on Oct. 12, stemmed from threatening communications VPG members say they received from former Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith, MD, Santa Clara Valley Medical Center CEO Paul Lorenz and SCVMC Chief Medical Officer Phuong Nguyen, MD, on Oct. 24 and 25, 2022. 

Valley Physicians Group members planned to begin a four-day strike Nov. 1, 2022, and continue through Nov. 4. However, both sides reached a tentative agreement Oct. 28, 2022, on a new contract, averting a walkout. Workloads and staffing were among the key issues brought up during negotiations. 

"On Oct. 24, 2022, Smith sent an email to members threatening [union members] risked being reported to the California Medical Board for 'patient abandonment' if they participated in the strike," the union said in a news release shared with Becker's. "The next day, Nguyen and Lorenz sent a similar letter from the Medical Staff Office's email address. Since no Medical Staff Committee endorsed the letter and no Medical Staff Officer signed the letter, this communication from county executive managers also violated the independence of the medical staff."

In its view, the threat was hollow and constituted illegal intimidation, VPG said. The union subsequently filed an unfair labor practice charge with the state late last year, and a hearing date was set for this month. The new county executive, James Williams, agreed to a settlement before the hearing.  

The settlement, according to the union news release, requires the county to send an email to all VPG-represented employees retracting the previous letter from executives; hold a training for county executive managers who oversee VPG members regarding employee rights; and formally acknowledge its legal obligation to "meet and confer with recognized representatives of bargaining units before issuing a mass communication concerning public employees' rights to join or support (or refrain from joining/supporting) an employee organization."

"VPG members proudly serve a safety-net community," the union said. "We are devoted to our patients and teaching missions and look forward to continued work with the county, under its new leadership, to achieve these mutual goals."

Mr. Williams shared the following statement with Becker's: "We are happy to have a resolution that will allow both sides to move forward in a positive way. We expect the previous concerns won't be an issue in the future and we look forward to continued excellent care for patients in our healthcare system."

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