California healthcare workers take HCA Healthcare to court over COVID-19 failures

August 31, 2020
by John R. Fischer, Senior Reporter
A group of California hospital workers are taking the largest healthcare system in America to court for allegedly failing to prepare and protect healthcare workers against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Three employees at Riverside Community Hospital and the daughter of a former employee who contracted and died from the virus filed a suit last week in Superior Court of California, County of Riverside against the hospital’s parent company, HCA Healthcare. They are accusing it of taking actions that created a dangerous work environment and failing to equip staff with adequate PPE, and pressuring them to focus more on their work and less on their safety.

The suit is the first to be brought against a national healthcare system since the start of the pandemic, according to the plaintiffs Vanessa Mondragon, Gladys Reyes, Ray Valdivia, and Vanessa Campos Villalobos, who spoke to reporters during a virtual press conference on the suit.

“This is not a responsibility that ends at the doors of the hospitals,” said Dave Regan, president of Service Employees International Union – United Healthcare Workers West, the union representing the plaintiffs in the suit. “Healthcare workers are essential employees and they have families who, by extension, become essential employees if the proper protections are not taken. We are taking this action to get as much attention as we can about the ongoing difficulties that workers are facing at Riverside Community Hospital, and [for them to be] heard in getting the proper equipment and having their issues taken seriously by management.”

The defendants named in the suit include HCA Healthcare; Samuel N. Hazen, CEO of HCA Healthcare; Riverside Healthcare System (which does business as Riverside Community Hospital); and Jackie DeSouza-Van Blaricum, CEO of Riverside Community Hospital.

Among the allegations against them are forcing employees to work without adequate personal protective gear such as masks, gowns and face shields, and pressuring employees to not take reasonable and necessary precautions against exposure to COVID-19, such as frequent sanitization of commonly used medical tools, out of fear that taking such precautions would harm efficiency and productivity.

Reyes, a lab tech and phlebotomist who tested positive in early June for the virus, asserts that she was pressured to focus on making more draws from patients rather than sanitizing and taking steps to ensure she and her patients were safe from contracting the virus.

“I feel like they didn’t have the proper equipment and should have been more prepared for this,” she said. “They could have been more prepared and had more staff for us to be able to perform our job and get our patients drawn in a timely manner. It wasn’t like that. It was more pressure than usual, because I didn’t want to catch this.”

The hospital system is also accused of forcing sick employees to work despite having COVID-19 symptoms and ignoring repeated worker complaints to supervisors about lack of PPE, contract tracing for workers and the failure of hospital management to promptly notify workers who were exposed to the virus.

“The responses that were given to her were, ‘This is just CDC guidelines. Get in line. Show up and get the job done,’” said Campos Villalobos, whose mother, Sally Lara was a lab worker at HCA Healthcare. “That’s who my mother was. She was a get-the-job-done kind of woman. She started to supply her own PPE not just for herself but for her coworkers too.”

Lara, who came out of retirement at the start of the pandemic to help care for patients, contracted COVID-19 back in May and died a month later after being on a ventilator for two weeks. She was the second healthcare worker from Riverside Community Hospital to die from the virus.

“It just breaks my heart that my mom passed away on June 8 and I’m still hearing stories from employees because there is still not adequate PPE or enough supplies,” said her daughter. “I just really hope that we can bring enough awareness that another person does not have to be without their mother, father, daughter, cousin, brother and family members.”

The hospital previously faced two demonstrations, with one being a 10-day strike by about 500 nurses in late June over allegations of having dangerously low staff levels. A prior demonstration in April included about 50 nurses and other healthcare workers who were protesting over what they said was a failure of the facility to provide appropriate equipment, according to The Press-Enterprise.