Dozens of nurses rallied for more competitive wages and benefits packages outside Santa Clara Valley Medical Center on Thursday, claiming that too many newly graduated nurses use the county hospital as taxpayer-funded training before leaving for higher-paying private hospitals.
"We're spending a lot of money training these new grads, and after six months to a year, they're going to another hospital because they get a better package," said Holly Smith of the Registered Nurses Professional Association.
Comparing the "revolving door" issue to the staffing crisis experienced by the San Jose police over the last few years, Dustin DeRollo, a lobbyist contracting with the nurse union, asserted that the county has the funds to pay nurses more competitively.
A wage realignment study commissioned by the RNPA last year compared VMC nurses' salaries to those at private hospitals in the county, including El Camino, Stanford Children's, Stanford Health Care, Kaiser Permanente, Good Samaritan, Regional Medical Center and O'Connor.
That study found big differences among newer nurses, showing that nurses with four years of experience make as much as 17 percent less at VMC than they would at the private hospitals.
But the public-private wage gap shrinks among nurses with more seniority. Nurses with 15 to 25 years of experience make between 5 and 7 percent less at VMC than they would at private hospitals in the area, the study shows.
Russell Cobb said he was trained in a group of 13 new nurses six years ago. Today, only three of them remain at VMC, he said.
"What we have now is a reverse of a bell curve. We have all these nurses with a lot of experience, and we have all these nurses with a little bit of experience," Cobb said.
"Experienced nurses need to want to come to this hospital, and right now they're like, 'No way, I'm not going there,'" Smith said.
Smith said VMC not only pays less, but also is a more demanding job because of what she called a "hard population" in trauma, burn and pediatric units.
"As they retire, we're not replacing them with experienced nurses. It's only new grads coming in, which is creating a dangerous environment for our patients," Smith said.
Dylan Buckingham, who has worked as a registered nurse at VMC for a decade, said he sees safety issues resulting from high patient to nurse ratios "on a regular basis."
"During undesirable shifts like night shift, it can be almost the blind leading blind," Buckingham said. "We have nurses with two, three years' experience in charge, and all the nurses taking care of the patients have one to two years' experience."
Nurses at the county hospital did not receive a raise in 2011 or 2012 and had their benefits cut in 2013, according to DeRollo. In 2014, the county raised nurse wages by 3.75 percent.
"We know the valuable role that the nurses play," Santa Clara Valley Health and Hospital System spokeswoman Joy Alexiou said, noting that the hospital would "continue to work" with the nurses' union, which is not currently in contract negotiations.