California hospital leaders threatened workers against participating in strike, complaint alleges

Members of Service Employees International Union Local 521 have filed a complaint against Santa Clara  County, Calif., alleging that hospital leaders threatened them against participating in a strike by physicians in the county's public health and hospital system.

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

SEIU Local 521's complaint, filed Oct. 31 with the California Public Employment Relations Board, includes a letter sent to workers Oct. 25 by CEO Paul Lorenz and Chief Medical Officer Phuong Nguyen, MD.

The complaint, which was shared with Becker's, states, "Our expectation is that as members of the enterprise medical staff you will comply with your separate legal and ethical obligations to ensure that our patients are cared for appropriately during the strike and beyond. Any adverse outcomes to patients who are left unattended or inadequately attended because of strike activity may be required to be reported to regulatory authorities, including the Medical Board of California."

The letter also asks medical staff to "make themselves available to work in county healthcare facilities to the extent possible during the strike and help provide patients access to medical care to the extent the patients' physicians are not working."  

SEIU Local 521 contends the letter illegally threatened union members. 

"Given the staffing crisis at [San Jose, Calif.-based] Valley Medical Center, it is imperative that workers' right to speak out and take concerted action be protected," Mullissa Willette, SEIU Local 521 president and Santa Clara County union member, said in a statement shared with Becker's. The union filed the complaint "because VMC sent a letter that illegally threatened professionals represented by SEIU Local 521 with possible loss of their license if they chose to exercise their legal right to engage in protected concerted activity in solidarity with another union representing the physicians, the Valley Physician Group on the verge of going on strike. While the County and VPG 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 front-line workers that need to be heard."

Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith, MD, told Becker's the union's assertions "are incorrect. We strongly support the employees right to unionize and call for work actions. However, we will also always do everything in our power to assure quality patient care."

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