Days before a two-year contract expires for Santa Clara County's largest labor union, several public hospital employees staged a "sick out" to call attention to their demands for higher wages and benefits.
Service Employees International Union Local 521, which represents some 10,000 of the county's 15,000 employees, voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to authorize a strike to address issues ranging from "a critically understaffed 9-1-1 department to a looming labor shortage."
That vote allows members to petition the South Bay Labor Council to support an official protest—if it comes to that. The last strike by the county SEIU chapter was in 1975 and lasted two weeks.
Preemptive sick-outs, however, are illegal, though not unheard of as a contract comes up for re-negotiation.
On Thursday, 20 employees in the Valley Health Center East and all eight day shift technicians in the Renal Care Center claimed unauthorized sick leave, according to a county insider. Valley Medical had to scramble to help dialysis patients, calling in backup from other departments to keep the clinic up and running.
"Our job is to try to make sure that public services are not being impacted in any way," Deputy County Executive Luke Leung told San Jose Inside. "We would prefer to have full service, but there is no danger to patient care."
The unsanctioned protests prompted Valley Medical CEO Paul Lorenz said there would be consequences for calling in sick to make a statement.
"The county has contacted SEIU regarding this 'sick out' and SEIU staff and elected leadership informed the county that the rumored 'sick outs' are not SEIU authorized nor SEIU endorsed events," he wrote in a June 5 hospital-wide memo. "In fact, the SEIU chapter chair stated clearly that such a sick out 'would be illegal.'"
He said anyone who fraudulently uses their sick leave as a form of protest will get their pay docked or find themselves on the receiving end of some disciplinary action. Beginning June 6, the county began demanding doctor's notes for all unplanned sick time or risk getting cited for an unexcused absence.