Registered nurses and health care workers in San Jose are demanding a hospital owner address staffing shortages and dangerous working conditions.
Approximately 145 members of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United, dressed in red shirts and armed with picket signs, took to the sidewalks Tuesday in front of the Good Samaritan Hospital. Chants of “Nurses on the outside, something’s wrong in the inside” and vehicle horns from supportive passersby echoed off the hospital walls as health care workers marched back and forth along Samaritan Drive. Another event is planned at the Regional Medical Center on North Jackson Avenue this afternoon.
Both hospitals are owned by Nashville-based HCA Healthcare, one of the largest for-profit hospital operators in the U.S. With 186 hospitals nationwide, the company runs several facilities in the South Bay, including Good Samaritan Hospital and the Regional Medical Center.
Nurses and health care workers said they hope to raise awareness about issues that are driving nurses away and leaving others in working conditions where they can’t take breaks during 12-hour shifts. According to the union, the hospital has seen a 22% drop in the number of nurses since 2019. At Regional Medical Center, it’s a 33% drop over the same period. Some nurses also claim the hospitals are engaging in union busting by firing those who speak up. The union is in negotiations for a contract that expires in June.
“Morale is terrible, and nurses are feeling burnt out,” Darlene Taiste, a registered nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital for 15 years, told San José Spotlight. “We just feel unappreciated and disrespected. This has been the worst I’ve ever seen during my time.”
Nurse-to-patient ratios are at unsafe levels, and the unit treating COVID-19 patients is out of compliance with state requirements, Taiste said. Santa Clara County is seeing a rise in cases again this month, with the seven-day rolling average of new COVID infections jumping to 952 from late April’s number at 290.
“If COVID does get bad, we won’t have enough nurses to take care of these cases,” she said. “That’s not safe for the community. That’s not safe for nurses.”
The rallies come after health care workers at several other health care systems, including Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, raised issues with rampant staffing shortages that have led to unsustainable and challenging workloads.
Local health care workers claim the company prioritizes profits over patient care and the well-being of the workforce. They point to the fact HCA Healthcare more than doubled its profit during the height of the pandemic in 2021, where it netted $6.9 billion compared to $3.7 billion in 2020.
“While we support the rights of our nurses to participate in labor union activities, we want to ensure our patients, our employees and our community that safety is of paramount importance to Good Samaritan Hospital,” hospital spokesperson Antonio Castelan told San José Spotlight. “No one cares more for our colleagues than we do, especially during the pandemic amid a national nursing shortage.”
Nurses fight for rights
John Pasha, former registered nurse and chief union representative at the hospital, begged to differ. Pasha said he was abruptly fired earlier this year after trying to deliver a petition signed by union members demanding better staffing levels to the hospital’s administration last December. He’s currently fighting to get his job back.
“That was definitely a union busting move,” Pasha told San José Spotlight. “It just goes to show where their real focus is—they would rather silence nurses than let us do what we’re supposed to do.”
Praised as heroes during the early days of the pandemic, health care workers’ demands for safe patient care and safe staffing levels are now being ignored, registered nurse Maureen Zeman told San José Spotlight.
“We want to retain nurses by having the salary and benefits like everybody else is having in the area,” Zeman said, adding new nurses at the hospital often move on to other jobs because of the grueling working conditions. “If they don’t listen then there probably will be a strike in the future.”
The unions’ efforts have garnered some support from elected officials, including state Sen. Dave Cortese. A representative from his office joined the health care workers in chanting Tuesday morning.
“We trust and rely on our nurses to advocate for their patients, so we must do our part by acting upon their concerns,” Cortese told San José Spotlight, adding he’s authoring a bill to provide equal protections and access to the workers’ compensation system for registered nurses. “Safe staffing saves lives—time is of the essence to protect both our frontline nurses and the patients they serve.”
The union is scheduled to resume negotiations next week.