COVID-19 testing
Drive-through COVID-19 testing. Courtesy OnScene.TV

Three unionized workers from Riverside Community Hospital are suing the facility over what they allege were elevated and unjustified coronavirus exposure risks that caused illnesses and even deaths, it was announced Thursday.

But officials at the company that owns the hospital denied the lawsuit’s assertions, saying the court filing is “an attempt for the union to gain publicity.”

The civil suit filed in Riverside County Superior Court stems from what the plaintiffs allege were months of errant practices that raised infection dangers, including lack of appropriate personal protective equipment for workers’ safety in the hospital.

“All of us as healthcare workers know we face higher risks in a hospital environment where we work in close proximity to patients suffering from COVID-19, but this hospital and its parent company didn’t follow CDC guidelines and didn’t seem to care about our safety or the safety of our patients,” plaintiff Gladys Reyes said.

Representatives from HCA Healthcare, which owns and operates RCH, responded to the suit, asserting the “health and safety of our workers” has consistently been a top priority “so they can best care for our patients.”

“Any suggestion otherwise ignores the extensive work, planning and training we have done to ensure the delivery of high-quality care during this pandemic,” according to the HCA statement. “Our frontline caregivers have shown unwavering commitment and tremendous sacrifice, and our safety efforts have included testing of colleagues, universal masking and other safeguards, in line with guidance from the CDC.”

“We’re proud of our response and the significant resources we’ve deployed to help keep our colleagues safe,” the statement concluded. “This lawsuit is an attempt for the union to gain publicity, and we will defend it vigorously.

But plaintiff Reyes, who works as an RCH lab assistant and phlebotomist and tested positive for the virus in June, described her health situation.

“I was told I didn’t need a second COVID-19 test before returning to work in July, even though I still had symptoms,” she said. “I took one anyway and tested positive.”

Reyes was never hospitalized for treatment. She, like her two co-litigants, are members of United Healthcare Workers, a component of the Service Employees International Union, which has been at odds with RCH over a new collective bargaining agreement.

The suit alleges that hospital administrators did not provide appropriate personal protective equipment, or PPE, including gloves, masks and gowns to ensure workers’ safety.

RCH has previously denied the claim, with representatives saying in July that SEIU was deliberately attempting to “misguide” the public by not acknowledging the fact that most medical facilities were contending with PPE shortages in the first several months of the coronavirus emergency.

The suit further alleges that some ill employees were told to stay on the job, despite potential viral spread; that various sanitation procedures were dropped for the sake of increased productivity; and that management ignored complaints about allegedly harmful practices.

The plaintiffs allege the hospital, in effect, created a public nuisance by not implementing safety precautions and taking necessary steps to protect employees and patients. They’re seeking unspecified damage awards and other remedies.

The same issues were underscored during pickets at RCH in June and July.

During a protest last month, two fatalities — one involving a hospital housekeeper, Rosa Luna, and the other involving a laboratory assistant, Sally Lara — were rallying cries for change at the hospital.

Luna died from complications tied to COVID-19 in May, while Lara died the following month, also while suffering symptoms of the virus.

Union activists blamed slipshod or outright negligent acts on the part of hospital administrators for the women’s deaths.

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