A former South Pasadena nursing home worker who was hospitalized with COVID-19 will have to arbitrate her claims her ex-employer put profits over safety in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, a judge ruled Friday.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Maurice A. Leiter heard testimony from two witnesses, including plaintiff Reyna Hales, before granting the motion by the South Pasadena Care Center LLC’s motion to force Hales to take her claims before an arbitrator instead of a jury.
Leiter was presented with arguments from attorneys on May 12, but said he wanted to additionally be given testimony before making a final ruling.
The judge put the lawsuit on hold pending the outcome of the arbitration. He set a status conference for next March 10.
Lawyers for the care center maintained Hales signed an agreement to arbitrate all disputes when she was hired in May 2019, but Hales told the judge she did not recall seeing or signing such a document.
“I swear to God that I’ve never seen that document before,” the Spanish-speaking Hales testified through the assistance of an interpreter when shown a copy of the arbitration agreement with her purported signature on it by attorney John Barber.
Pressed by Barber for a further explanation, Hales replied, “I know my own handwriting.”
Hales’ testimony was contradicted by that of Michelle Olmo-Bowie, who until two months ago was the nursing home’s director of staff development. She said she was in charge of hiring and that Hales signed all the documents put in front of her when she was interviewed for a job as a certified nursing assistant in February 2019.
“She didn’t have any questions,” Olmo-Bowie said. “She was eager to come to work.”
Hales sued last Nov. 23. Her causes of action include wrongful termination, retaliation and failure to provide rest and meal periods as well as wages for all time worked.
“As a result of SPCC’s failure to take necessary measures, there was a massive outbreak of COVID-19 at its facility,” the suit alleges.
Hales was appreciated by staff and patients alike at the Mission Street facility and named “employee of the month” in July 2019, according to her court papers.
In March 2020, then-President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in response to COVID-19 and days later, Gov. Gavin Newsom did the same in California.
Federal, state, county and local authorities issued orders, guidelines and other legal requirements designed to combat COVID-19, including practicing social distancing and the wearing of personal protective equipment where appropriate.
“Unfortunately, SPCC chose to violate and disregard these requirements in the interest of maximizing its own profits at the expense of the health and well-being of its employees,” the suit alleges.
SPCC failed to supply frontline employees like Hales, who regularly came into close physical contact with patients, with necessary PPE, including N95 masks and disinfectants, the suit alleges.
“Instead, SPCC management kept the best personal protective equipment for itself even though management rarely came into direct contact with patients,” the suit alleges.
SPCC provided one gown per room in lieu of one per patient, creating the risk of infection from one patient to another, according to the complaint.
“Interestingly, while management failed to provide employees with gowns for work purposes, some members of management did use the gowns to make TikTok videos for personal amusement,” the suit alleges.
SPCC also “recklessly failed to segregate and quarantine COVID-19 infected patients by, (among other things), putting them into the same room as non-COVID-19 patients and allowing them to leave their rooms and go to other parts of the facility,” according to the suit, which alleges SPCC also “allowed or required COVID-19 infected employees to work, exposing others to infection.”
Hales says she repeatedly protested and complained about the alleged management attitude regarding coronavirus safety, but nothing was done.
About 50 SPCC employees and patients were infected with the coronavirus and at least one died, the suit states. As the virus was spreading through SPCC “like wildfire,” management tried to protect its profits at the expense of the health and well-being of its patients and employees by “covering up, hiding and lying about people at the facility getting sick with COVID-19,” the suit alleges.
After several employees became uneasy about entering the facility, management threatened to take action and report them to the state, the suit states.
When Hales complained again about the alleged unsafe conditions, a supervisor told her, “We are not hiding anything. You need to stop gossiping and listening to gossip. I am tired of it,” the suit says.
Hales says she was infected with the coronavirus in late April 2020 and hospitalized through early May 2020. She went on sick leave and when she tried to return in August and asked about her schedule, a human resources employee replied, “What schedule? You don’t work here anymore,” the suit states.
Hales believes she was fired for coming forward about SPCC’s alleged illegal coronavirus activities, her taking of medical leave and her request for weight limits on how much she could lift after she got fibromyalgia, the suit states.
She also alleges the facility was often short-staffed, causing her to toil without breaks and outside of her normal work hours.
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