LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A judge said he will hold a hearing before deciding whether 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.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Maurice A. Leiter heard arguments on the motion by the South Pasadena Care Center LLC's motion to force plaintiff Reyna Hales to take her claims before an arbitrator instead of a jury, but said he wanted to hear evidence on May 28 before making a final ruling.
Lawyers for the care center maintain Hales signed an agreement to arbitrate all disputes when she was hired in May 2019, but Hales' attorneys say she does not recall seeing or signing such a document.
“The court cannot determine on the papers alone whether plaintiff accepted and/or signed the agreement,” Leiter stated in his written ruling. Hales sued 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 hired in February 2019 as a nursing assistant at the Mission Street facility, was appreciated by staff and patients alike and was 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.
Hales also alleges the facility was often short-staffed, causing her to toil without breaks and outside of her normal work hours.