Image shows Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. Thousands of former patients of Santa Clara Valley Healthcare may be eligible for potential billing corrections and refunds as part of a lawsuit settlement. (Photo courtesy of SCVMC/Twitter)

Nurses, medical professionals and hospital workers rallied in front of the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, calling upon the county to recognize their demands for higher wages and new contracts.

“What do we want?” one protester called into a microphone. “Contracts!” the crowd of more than 100 people responded. And they want them now, according to their chants.

About 3,000 of the county’s nurses are represented by their local union, the Registered Nurses Professional Association, which for months has been attempting negotiations with the county’s Labor Relations department for new contracts, as their old ones will expire by the end of October.

Workers with the RNPA and another union, the Service Employees International Union, Local 521, have for weeks been speaking during the county’s Board of Supervisors meetings to motivate local lawmakers to hear their demands for higher wages and better working conditions.

Debbie Chang, president of the local RNPA chapter, said her workers need better pay or many will leave, as they already are, for other counties that pay better and have more adequately staffed hospitals and offices. She said they are trying to stop a “revolving door” effect on medical staff.

“What we want is the county to propose a decent living wage. We want to keep our nurses that work in this community to continue living here,” Chang said. “That means we’re continuing to hire our newest nurses with no experience fresh out of college and train them, only to see them hired elsewhere. That revolving door needs to stop.”

She said two areas of the county, namely medical facilities in Juvenile Hall and Main Jail, are in a “staffing crisis” because noncompetitive wages are driving nurses away. This, she said, means patient care suffers at understaffed facilities.

“Our patients in those areas deserve to have excellent nursing care at all times,” Chang said.

Without a new, competitive contract from the county, Chang said her workers, particularly the lowest paid of them, will continue leaving the county, either for new jobs or to find more affordable places to live outside the county. Meanwhile, others have either already left the area or have moved in with family to afford to live close to their work.

Gilbert Martinez, a Valley Medical worker represented by SEIU Local 521, moved about three-and-a-half hours away last year to Los Banos for an affordable place to live, after being born and raised in San Jose about 48 years ago.

He said he leaves his home before 4 a.m. every day to get to work on time at 7 a.m. Having worked at Valley Medical for 18 years, he said things like his pride in the work he’s done at the hospital and his retirement plan kept him working in Santa Clara County.

“I’ve been here for 18 years, I’m not going to give up my CalPERS and everything I’ve worked so hard for,” Martinez said, who repairs medical equipment for the hospital’s biomedical department. “I started out in the laundry and into the BioMed team, so I’m not going to give that up.”

While he lives in Los Banos now, he doesn’t want to remain there, but wants to keep his job.

“I’m hoping to make enough money to come back to where I was born and raised,” Martinez said.

Maybelline Que, treasurer for the RNPA and a Valley Medical trauma nurse, has lived in San Jose her whole life. She said with seven years at Valley Medical, she doesn’t want to leave her job at the hospital, but will if a new lucrative contract isn’t negotiated.

“It’s not feasible for me to be able to buy a house,” Que, 39, said. “I love this community, I love the community that I serve, and that’s why I want to be able to work in Santa Clara County, but if they continue to pay me these low wages, I don’t know how much longer I can do that for. I might have to relocate to a different state maybe.”