Optometrist Alleges He Was Fired for Expressing COVID-19 Workplace Concerns

LOS ANGELES (CNS) An optometrist has sued his former employer, alleging he was fired for complaining that a colleague's return to work from South Korea during the incubation period for the COVID-19 virus in March put the workplace and patients at risk.

Lonn Schwartz's Los Angeles Superior Court wrongful termination suit, filed Thursday, seeks unspecified damages against East Valley Community Health Center Inc. A representative for the center did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The center provides medical, dental, optometric and mental health services to patients across the San Gabriel and Pomona valleys. Schwartz began working for the company in June 2018, the suit states.

On Feb. 27, Schwartz emailed CFO Lelenia Navarro and the chief medical officer, Dr. Chinhnam Hathuc, stating that the State Department recommended a day earlier that Americans not travel to South Korea because the COVID-19 outbreak “seems to be gathering steam there,” the suit states.

Schwartz further stated that a dentist who shared his office went to South Korea for a family funeral, the suit states.

“I am not sure what to make of this whole coronavirus thing ... but I am just a bit concerned about her coming back on (March 2),” the suit states.

Hathuc replied, “We have clinic policy and procedures to deal with potential exposures like this. However, I wouldn't be too concerned with travel like this because the governments and airports involved also have their own protocols in place for this,” according to the suit.

Schwartz found out later from the dentist that she returned from South Korea on Feb. 28 and that the main outbreak areas were about four hours away from where she was staying, the suit states. But the dentist said that South Korea “is a small country and it's everywhere now,” the suit states.

The dentist told Schwartz she planned to be back at work March 2, the suit states.

Her pending return “caused plaintiff grave concern for both his own safety and the safety of his other coworkers and patients,” the suit states. “ Indeed, plaintiff shared a very small office with (the dentist) and plaintiff would have to be less than the recommended six feet away (from her).”

Schwartz is 64 years old and at higher risk of complications from COVID-19, the suit states. Schwartz knew that South Korea had the most COVID-19 cases outside of China and that individuals infected with the malady could be asymptomatic and still spread the disease to others during the 14-day incubation period, the suit states.

On March 2, to try to reduce the risk of transmission to himself and the patients he saw, Schwartz did his administrative work in his exam room instead of the small office he shared with the dentist, the suit states. He also at his lunch in his car, according to his complaint.

That evening, Hathuc called Schwartz and accused him of “spreading malicious lies, fear mongering and xenophobia,” the suit states.

Schwartz complained that the accusations against him were not true and that he was just trying to do the right thing for the safety of patients, co-workers and his own safety in the workplace, especially given the rise in COVID-19 cases and the fact that the dentist could be completely asymptomatic during the virus's 14-day incubation period, the suit states.

The next day, Director of Human Resources Danielle Gonzalez and another human resources employee spoke with Schwartz, who told Gonzalez that he avoided the small office he shared with the dentist to keep himself and his patients safe, the suit states. But on March 5, Gonzalez and Hathuc told Schwartz he was being fired because his behavior and comments created a hostile work environment, the suit states.

Schwartz believes the real reason he was fired was due to his complaints about the dentist's risk of returning to work from South Korea during the incubation period for the COVID-19 virus and because he is white and both Hathuc and the dentist are Asian.

Photo: Getty Images

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