NORTH COUNTY — After six years of minor lawsuits, 53 nurses from Twin Cities Community Hospital came together this week to file claims against the hospital for widespread violations of California labor laws.
Lauren Teukolsky of Baltodano and Baltodano LLP, the attorney for the nurses, explained that an earlier lawsuit filed by nine nurses in March 2015 claimed that Twin Cities has routinely violated the nurses’ workplace rights under California law.
The claim stated, “The hospital is drastically understaffed, which means that nurses are unable to take state-mandated breaks. Supervisors instructed nurses to take breaks by simply walking away from their patients, without providing a ‘break nurse’ to ensure proper coverage.”
California law mandates that hospitals maintain a specific nurse-to-patient ratio of 3 to 1 at all times.
According to the lawsuit, filed Oct. 3, hospital supervisors instructed nurses to violate these mandatory ratios by abandoning their patients to take breaks. The lawsuit also asserts that the hospital has failed
to pay nurses properly for years, and has required nurses to work off the clock to avoid paying overtime.
“These 53 nurses and more have raised these issues with management repeatedly since 2010,” Teukolsky said. “The hospital has failed to do anything about the problems identified in the lawsuit, prompting a much larger group of nurses to file their own additional claims today.”
She said Tenet Health, the nation’s third largest for-profit healthcare company that owns Twin Cities, has required all the nurses to sign an arbitration agreement that gives up their rights to file claims in court. Instead, they must file claims in private arbitration.
“The arbitration agreement has a confidentiality provision prohibiting the nurses from disclosing any
statements they make in arbitration,” Teukolsky explained. “So, without Tenet’s consent, I can’t share the actual claims we filed in arbitration today.”
Ron Yukelson, chief business development officer for Twin Cities in the Central Coast service area, issued a written statement on behalf of the hospital in response to the nurses’ claims.
“We have and will continue to defend the hospital against the pending action,” the statement read. “Twin Cities Community Hospital staffs based on patient need and in accordance with state laws. We are committed to providing safe, high-quality care to every patient.”
According to Teukolsky, a 2013 investigation by the California Department of Health found that the hospital was understaffed in violation of state-mandated nurse-patient ratios. The investigation concluded that understaffing resulted in “patients’ pain medications not being given in a timely manner” and “patients experiencing increased falls.”
Nurse Kim Emard, who has worked in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU) since 1994, confirmed this report in a statement released to the press.
“I have come back from my breaks to find no one watching my patients. I found crucial medication drips empty, with the medication alarm going off and no one there to check it. For a sedated, unstable, intubated patient, an empty drip is very dangerous and potentially deadly,” Emard said. “These drips are responsible for maintaining adequate blood pressure and sedation, all to ensure safety and proper treatment of these patients.”
The next action that led to the current claim happened in July 2014, when the California Labor Commissioner’s Office awarded $32,000 to a Twin Cities nurse for missed rest breaks due to understaffing.
Teukolsky explained that in this case, the hearing officer concluded that Twin Cities “failed to provide an adequate number of qualified staff who could, or did, oversee patients= to allow the Plaintiff his rest
period without fear of violating patient-to-nurse ratio requirements.” The Commissioner’s findings also said the “hospital retaliated against nurses who exercised their right under California law to receive premium wages for missed breaks.”
Wendy Harris-Butler, one of the 53 nurses who filed Monday’s lawsuit, started her career with Tenet at Twin Cities in June 2010, after graduating from the Cuesta College nursing program. She said the group of nurses bringing legal action against Tenet are doing so because their No. 1 goal as nurses is to provide safe patient care.
“We are a small community. We provide care for our neighbors, friends and family and optimum patient outcome is our goal as nurses,” Harris- Butler said. “It has been difficult for us to do that because we have not had adequate staffing. We have repeatedly gone to management administration to bring concerns about our staffing ratios. They have stonewalled us, so we are taking action.”
She added, “We simply do not have enough hands or eyes to provide the quality of care our community deserves. It is disheartening to know that they knowingly and willfully didn’t supply us with enough staff to take breaks.”
Teukolsky is hopeful that the claim filed Monday will illustrate the severity of the problems that these nurses are facing and will hold their employer accountable.
“These nurses are brave for taking this action against their employer, who could easily retaliate against them for doing so,” she said. “They all care so much for patient care and are dedicated to this small community. That is why they are taking action today.”
For the complete article see the 10-07-2016 issue.
Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 10-07-2016 paper.
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