County Hospital Workers Allegedly Stage Sick Out; Strike Looming?

Almost two weeks before she won the election for Santa Clara County Supervisor’s District 2 seat, ex-labor leader Cindy Chavez said she would not cross a picket line.

“To my knowledge, I have never crossed a picket line,” she told bankruptcy judge Arthur Weissbrodt, according to the Mercury News’ account of a debate between Chavez and opponent Teresa Alvarado hosted July 17 by San Jose Rotary Club. “And I don’t foresee a time I would do that.”

That promise may get tested early since SEIU 521, the 8,000-employee county union whose contract is up for renewal, strategically postponed negotiations until Aug. 11, after the special election, in hopes of gaining a more favorable outcome. About 6,400 of those union members work at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. The day after Chavez was voted in, some technicians in the hospital’s radiology department staged a “sick out,” which is not quite a strike but a coordinated effort to call in sick to work to make a statement. Enough participated that it left the hospital scrambling to schedule replacements.

A source inside the hospital says the union was emboldened by the Chavez win to go ahead with the “sick out.” Chavez did not return a call for comment, and SBLC spokesperson Stacey Hendler Ross declined comment.

“Whenever there’s a labor contract in place with the county like this, the unions are barred from striking or taking job actions to stop work,” says county spokeswoman Gwen Mitchell. “So our contract is still in effect. We don’t expect anyone to go on the record and say that this was organized because that would be illegal.”

Any SEIU member who called in sick will be asked for a doctor’s note, Mitchell says. If they don’t have one, their pay gets docked for that day. A hospital employee says that’s unlikely to happen, based on the laxness of past disciplinary practices and rampant sick leave abuse.

Union leaders denied knowledge of the sick-out.

“It’s news to me,” SEIU 521’s head of communications, Khanh Weinberg. “I can tell you that this union is not on strike.”

It wasn’t a strike, but it was a big enough shake-up at the hospital to prompt CEO Paul Lorenz to send an email to staffers who chose to actually show up to work that day.

“The past couple of days at VMC have been a challenge due to the increasing number of ‘sick calls,’” he writes in an Aug. 1 letter to his staff. “It is imperative that we continue to provide access to high quality and safe patient care. We want take thank [sic] those of you that have helped manage the situation and especially those of you who have provided additional coverage and support.  This has been of tremendous help and we are all very appreciative. Our patients depend on us and we must always keep in mind that we all play a critical role in the care of our patients. Patient care and safety is our first priority.”

The county shoulders an enormous debt because of employee retirement health insurance and has a burgeoning pension bill from the state to worry about.  So it’s asking workers to pay a bigger share for those benefits—a prospect that doesn’t sit well with the union.

“The county has only lowered workers’ health contribution from 10 percent to 8 percent, and the economics didn’t change significantly,” states a July 26 post on the SEIU 521 Facebook page. “Now, the fight continues—be ready to turn up the heat on the county. We need to ensure [it’s] Cindy Chavez that gets elected, the petition signed and everyone get ready for a strike vote.”

The county is poised to submit an ordinance to the board of supervisors later this month that would make the county pay down its $1.8 billion in retiree healthcare debt with 30 annual payments of $233 million beginning in 2018. A county request in the current labor negotiations is for workers to chip in bigger contributions now and more later, proportionately to the rising debt. The county originally asked for 20 percent contributions, but lowered the demand to 8 percent. There’s still some question about whether the county will restore salaries slashed in recent recessionary years.

“Clearly, this is not good enough to retain/recruit qualified staff,” reads a July 26 blog on the union website. “We need to escalate further!”

Valley Medical Center, which operates with a quarter of the county’s total budget, is nationally recognized for its specialties, research and partnership with Stanford and University of California schools of medicine. A county civil grand jury in 2012 determined that it’s a critical safety net for the community and that it’s very possible for the entity to financially break even.

But as is, the hospital is a sinkhole, consistently failing to operate within county budget restrictions and sucking in general fund subsidies because of serial shortfalls in its $1.2 billion budget. The organization’s operating losses more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2009, according to the most recent civil grand jury audit, which called the hospital resistant to change and financially out of control.

VMC has cycled through three CEOs in the past five years and, in some ways, is held back by long-entrenched interests that hamper productivity and efficiency.

Last year’s civil grand jury documented some of that dysfunction, while acknowledging that some progress has been made with the change in executive leadership and initiatives underway to hold management accountable for meeting performance goals.

Still, a huge money-suck listed in the report was wasted labor costs. In most businesses, managers can fill and cut positions or reduce hours as demand dictates. At the hospital and other county departments, however, once a full-time or part-time position is set, it’s impossible to change the position, even from full- to part-time. That leaves some workers with full-time pay even though they’re logging in part-time hours because the clinic doesn’t need full-time support for that position. That leaves the hospital with the option of moving staff around to different departments, but if overall demand is lower it still has to pay full salaries in lieu of layoffs.
(See page page 7-8 in the grand jury report.)

That effectively leaves the hospital’s hands tied.

“It is impossible to fire or discipline anyone at VMC so many just sit and stall, waiting for retirement or the CEO to change,” one employee writes. “There is zero system in place to enforce sick callouts. I know of no one who has ever been asked to produce any doctor’s note. There’s a lot of overtime abuse as well. All of this is an open secret and nobody does anything about it. Many who try to change the system give up.”

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that the South Bay Labor Council must grant permission for a union to strike. Rather, the SBLC sanctions a strike, which means that all other unions within the SBLC support the work stoppage.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. Interesting but a lot was left out.  The SEIU sick outs have been cycling across the county all summer.  Any SEIU official who pleads ignorance is a liar, any county supervisor who is still surprised by the sick outs is an idiot.  And spending a quarter of a billion dollars on a new computer system was probably an Epic mistake.

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