Santa Clara County health care workers are demanding leaders address ongoing worker shortages they said are leading to unsafe working conditions.

Dozens of nurses, physicians, medical assistants and hospital janitorial staff took to the streets in front of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (VMC) in San Jose Wednesday to protest what they said is a longstanding issue driving health care workers away.

“The short staffing here is so severe that not only are we as workers being put in danger, but the patients are being put in danger… because the staffing crisis is so severe,” said Riko Mendez, chief elected officer with SEIU 521, which represents more than 5,000 health care workers at VMC.

SEIU 521 currently has more than 2,000 vacancies, according to officials. The Registered Nurses Professional Association (RNPA), which represents 4,000 nurses in the county, has more than 300 vacancies.

The two unions, along with Valley Physicians Group which represents 450 doctors at VMC, co-signed a letter to County Executive Jeff Smith demanding higher pay and more resources. Workers are also asking for a zero tolerance policy for patients who assault staff, which is becoming a regular problem.

“We’re talking about safety for our staff,” Allan Kamara, vice president of RNPA, told San José Spotlight. “The amount of assaults on staff has risen tremendously and that comes with short staffing.”

Kamara said nurses are slapped, punched, have things thrown at them and are verbally abused on a daily basis. In a recent incident, he said a worker was knocked unconscious after being punched in the face by a patient. VMC recorded at least 40 incidents last month, but Kamara said he suspects the number is even higher.

Health care workers said they’ve sounded alarms over safety issues at VMC for years, with little result. They said because of the ongoing worker shortage, the average wait in the emergency room is between four to eight hours. Patients, frustrated with the long wait, have assaulted workers such as nurses as a result.

“I don’t know any other profession where you go to work, and these (attacks) just go unnoticed,” said Janelle Howard, a nurse who works in the emergency room at VMC. “If you go to the grocery store and someone attacks you, something would happen, right?”

Valley Medical Center and county representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment.

An exhausted workforce

The protest comes after nurses, physicians and other workers at VMC told San José Spotlight the workforce is exhausted and frustrated with county leadership for ongoing workplace issues, which have exacerbated over the COVID-19 pandemic.

Employees are working long hours, taking on the job of two or three people, and in some cases having to watch their patients’ health deteriorate because of the lack of workers and decrepit equipment. Doctors and medical residents are fed up and plan to exit the hospital system for other jobs.

The issues came to a boiling point this month after state regulators found numerous violations at Valley Medical Center and threatened to cut Medicare reimbursements.

The state investigation found the hospital failed to follow its own protocols on numerous occasions. In some of the most serious cases, VMC failed to prevent one patient from jumping to his death from the hospital’s fourth floor, and another patient from jumping from a third-floor parking garage after escaping the emergency room.

State regulators found VMC failed to investigate at least two sexual assault cases in the hospital’s inpatient psychiatry unit. The hospital also saw thousands of instances where patients escaped their hospital beds in 2021 and 2022.

Santa Clara County has started a correction plan, requiring more training for workers and implementing new auditing systems. The county has until April 25 to remedy its violations and seek approval from regulators, or risk losing Medicare reimbursements for patients.

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