The union that represents about 1,100 employees of an HCA Healthcare hospital in Riverside, Calif. is suing the hospital and its for-profit owner, alleging they failed to keep employees and patients safe from COVID-19.
SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West says in its lawsuit that Riverside Community Hospital created an unnecessarily dangerous work environment during the pandemic, endangering not only employees but patients, visitors, the community and employees' family members. The union claims administrators forced employees to work without adequate personal protective equipment and forced sick employees to work.
Defendants listed on the complaint, filed Thursday in state Superior Court in Riverside County, include Riverside Community Hospital; its CEO, Jackie DeSouza-Van Blaricum; and Nashville-based HCA and its CEO, Sam Hazen.
SEIU chapters around the country have been vocal about the safety of their members during the pandemic, but SEIU-UHW President Dave Regan said to his knowledge, this is the first lawsuit filed against a national U.S. company around the issue.
"We believe that the conditions that our members and the communities they live in are contending with in places like Riverside County are the direct result of policy decisions and leadership decisions that emanate from the headquarters of HCA in Nashville," Regan said on a call with reporters Thursday.
Riverside Community Hospital said in a statement that its top priority is the health and safety of its workers. To that end, it said leaders have done extensive planning and training to ensure high-quality care during the pandemic. Safety measures have included employee testing and universal masking in line with CDC guidelines.
"We're proud of our response and the significant resources we've deployed to help keep our colleagues safe," the hospital said. "This lawsuit is an attempt for the union to gain publicity, and we will defend it vigorously."
In addition to SEIU-UHW, the lawsuit claims three of the plaintiffs are RCH employees and union members who say they tested positive for COVID-19 after being exposed while working at the hospital. The mother of another plaintiff, Vanessa Campos Villalobos, also became ill while working at the hospital, and later died from COVID-19, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit's specific claims are that the plaintiffs instructed certain workers with COVID-19 symptoms to continue working, failed to provide employees with sufficient PPE such as masks, gowns, face shields and gloves and failed to provide PPE to environmental services workers, despite their being tasked with cleaning the rooms and beds of COVID-19 patients.
The complaint also alleges plaintiffs pressured employees to ignore safety precautions for the sake of meeting "quotas," failed to instruct workers to self-quarantine for at least 14 days even if they were symptomatic or had prolonged contact with COVID-19 patients and failed to conduct basic contract tracing or notifying coworkers when an employee tested positive for COVID-19.
CDC guidelines direct employers to encourage sick employees to stay home, send home employees who appear to have symptoms and inform other employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 if coworkers test positive.
Campos Villalobos said her mother, Sally Lara, complained to hospital management several times about a lack of adequate PPE for workers beyond just doctors and nurses, but her concerns were ignored, according to the SEIU complaint. She died on June 8, the second RCH employee and SEIU-UHW member to die from COVID-19, according to the lawsuit.
"The fact that two deaths haven't created enough shockwave to get the job done is just very unfortunate," Campos Villalobos said on Thursday's call.
The complaint says SEIU-UHW raised the same concerns with hospital administrators, but that they, too, were brushed aside.
Several other health systems have had complaints leveled against them and some healthcare worker unions have held strikes in protest against few or inadequate COVID-19 protections by their employers.
HCA's profit grew 38% to $1.1 billion in the quarter ended June 30, partly because the company was able to lower expenses almost 17% over the prior-year period. HCA's aggressive cost cuts included a 17.5% decline in supply costs and a 9% decline in labor costs.
SEIU's complaint seeks damages on the grounds that HCA committed a public nuisance, engaged in unfair and unlawful business practices, acted with negligence and committed negligent infliction of emotional distress. It does not indicate a specific amount of money being sought.
Since early in the pandemic, SEIU has raised concerns about safety and fair treatment for its members at HCA hospitals nationwide. The union created a website to collect soliciting from HCA employees. Last month, the union demanded more PPE and staffing at the company's 50 hospitals in Florida using an ad campaign that includes commercials, social media and billboards.