Santa Clara County spends $20M on contract nurses amid three-day strike

A scheduled three-day nurse strike started in Santa Clara County on Tuesday.

The strike is the first ever for the Registered Nurses Professional Association (RNPA). The nurses said they are underpaid, understaffed, and being asked to float between hospitals.

There are about 3,700 nurses in this union and many of them took to the picket lines on Tuesday. But county officials said while there was honking and chanting outside, it was business as usual inside.

Santa Clara County nurses say they need to be heard.

"Our biggest concern, everyone, is the pay and the staffing," said Reina Gabat, a pediatric urgent care nurse.

Nurses said patient safety is on the line. However, contract negotiations between the RNPA and county leaders have fallen apart. A proposal by a mediator last week was flatly rejected.

"We're barely getting anywhere, which is why it's been really frustrating. We've been negotiating with them for eight months now," said Maybelline Que, vice president of the RNPA.

The three-day strike has forced the county to bring in outside nurses to replace those on the picket lines. About 1000 of them were flown in from around the country at a cost of $20 million.

"Unfortunately, we now had to take money and put it towards this essential coverage. And that's money that we then don't have as a system," said James Williams, the County Executive for the County of Santa Clara.

So far, administrators say things are running smoothly at the county's three hospitals and over a dozen clinics. While some appointments were converted to video visits, and some elective procedures were postponed, the trauma center and emergency department are open.

"Inside the hospital, it really feels and looks and seems as though business as usual. The patients are getting the care they need. The staff here who have come to work seem very pleasant," said Jennifer Tong, MD, the chief experience officer for Santa Clara Valley Healthcare.

Patients gave mixed reviews. Michelle Ramirez was directed toward an outside urgent care.

"It seems like they're short-staffed. There's not a lot of workers in there," she said.

But Isaac Turner said that's not what he saw.

"My appointment was on time. I only waited five minutes once I arrived."

There has been one issue both the county and union can agree on. They were infuriated by what they call an "illegal sickout" by nurses last Friday.

That forced the closure of the level 1 trauma center for several hours. It came just days before the scheduled strike and forced patients to be diverted. One of them, a child, had to be rushed to Stanford's trauma center instead.

"That's not acceptable to us. That's not acceptable for the community," said Williams.

But nurses say they're at a breaking point and something needs to change.

"This time we need to take a stand because the county is not listening to us," said Gabat.

It is unclear what it will take to get both sides back to the bargaining table. This strike is set to run through early Friday morning.