SANTA CLARA COUNTY (CBS SF) — Two local unions are accusing Santa Clara County of endangering nurses by failing to inform them of coronavirus-infected patients or provide them with the required protective equipment.

The Santa Clara Registered Nurses Professional Association (RNPA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have joined forces in leveling a slew of charges against the county. The complaint, filed May 6 with the Public Employment Relations Board, alleges unfair labor practices and unsafe working conditions at private nursing homes.

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Kerianne Steele, an attorney at Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld who represents the unions, claims in a letter that the county assigned employees to skilled nursing facilities and gave “employees false assurances that they would treat only COVID-19-negative patients, and be adequately supervised, trained and provided with Personal Protective Equipment. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The county failed to train union workers in what personal protective gear is necessary and when or how to put on, take off, maintain and dispose of the gear, the complaint alleges.

The unions also argue that the Santa Clara County Public Health Department’s “vague” order does not empower the county to “disregard protections and obligations.” Further, Steele says in the complaint, the law does not define “emergency” as a “slow-burning pandemic.”

County leaders did not respond to requests for comment. In the letter, Steele claims the county has argued it has the right to unilaterally assign the employees because of the public health emergency.

Janet Diaz, president of SEIU Local 521, told San Jose Spotlight that the unions and the county have the same duty: to keep people healthy. However, Diaz said, the county’s actions show “literally the opposite,” putting nurses in a “life-threatening environment.” 

Diaz said the county should have conferred with the unions on how best to use union workers in areas with high infection.

“They were overextending their authority of what an emergency worker is,” Diaz said. “The county did not take our persistent, constant plea to let us help from the start to avoid all these mistakes and blatant disregard.”

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Since California has “successfully flattened, and arguably ‘crushed,’ the curve,”  Steele wrote, the county had ample time to consult the unions before deploying county health care workers to private nursing homes. 

“They should have contacted the unions in advance before those units were deployed because it gives us an opportunity to know what the conditions are at those sites,” Allan Kamara, vice president of the RNPA, told San Jose Spotlight. “The county was being evasive. The county did not tell these nurses what they were going into.”

Out of 438 people tested at two of the nursing homes in question – Canyon Springs in San Jose and Valley House Rehabilitation Center in Santa Clara – 141 tested positive for COVID-19, according to recent figures from the county. Of those tests, 74 results were pending.

Mike Benipayo, vice president at RNPA, told San Jose Spotlight some of the things he witnessed in the nursing homes were egregious, including people entering and exiting the home with contaminated protective equipment and eating outside.

The union’s motto is “keep yourself safe so you don’t become a problem,” he said, but he has not seen that happening at the nursing homes in question.

In addition to the charges filed, Kamara claims the county attempted to force union members to sign confidentiality agreements, something with which he took umbrage.

On Tuesday, the board granted the unions’ request to expedite the case.

Union leaders say they want a seat at the table to determine how best to deploy union workers in emergencies.

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“The county is saying they have no obligation in a disaster to talk to the union employees,” Kamara said. “We are hoping (the complaint) will set a precedence that in the future, when something like this happens, the county is obligated to talk to unions.”