The case, filed in Superior Court of the State of California, is the first that attempts to hold a national hospital company legally responsible for allegedly inadequate protective gear and for policies requiring employees to work while infected, according to the Service Employees International Union, which initiated the suit.
At least one other health-care labor organization, New York’s largest nurses union, brought similar lawsuits against their state’s health department and two New York-area hospitals in April. At that time, the New York region was the country’s hub of the pandemic, which has left at least 170,000 dead people nationwide, according to The Washington Post. Two of the cases, against the state and Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, have been dismissed, and the status of the third was not immediately clear.
The question of health-care workers’ possible exposure to the novel coronavirus has been a thread running through the country’s greatest public health calamity in more than a century. Early on in the pandemic, and occasionally more recently, hospital executives have spoken out against shortages of masks, gowns, face shields and other personal protective equipment that the federal government has been responsible for supplying.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 138,000 coronavirus cases have been reported among health-care workers, including 637 deaths, though the federal agency say those figures are an undercount because the data it collects does not always specify people’s work. A separate compilation of health-care worker covid-19 deaths, by the Guardian newspaper and the Kaiser Family Foundation, says 922 are likely to have succumbed to the virus.
In response to the suit, Annette Greenwood, Riverside Community Hospital chief nursing officer, said in a statement: “No one takes the health and safety of our workers more seriously than we do, and, since day one, our top priority has been to protect them — to keep them safe and keep them employed — so they can best care for our patients. . . . Our safety efforts have included testing of colleagues, universal masking and other safeguards, in line with guidance from the CDC.”
In addition to the SEIU’s Western chapter, plaintiffs in Thursday’s lawsuit include three Riverside Community Hospital workers who tested positive for the coronavirus or had symptoms consistent with covid-19. The complaint says one of them, a patient safety observer, “was forced to work a shift . . . despite explaining and demonstrating his persistent symptoms” to his supervisor and an employee health department.
A Riverside phlebotomist, Gladys Reyes, said in a video news conference Thursday that she had been criticized by managers for not drawing blood from covid-19 patients quickly enough.
“I was spending time sanitizing and gowning . . . I was looking out for patient safety and my safety,” Reyes said. Nonetheless, she began feeling sick and tested positive in late June. Her son, the lawsuit alleges, lost his job because he was staying home to take care of Reyes until she got better.
Another phlebotomist, Sally Lara, came down with symptoms on Mother’s Day and died June 8. Her daughter, Vanessa Campos Villalobos, said that, before she got sick, her mother complained to supervisors about the need for more protective gear and had begun to bring her own supplies and share them with co-workers.