Employee fired after recording med waste

An amateur film featuring overflowing trash bins and medical waste at Enloe Medical Center may have landed a housekeeper jobless and made him a poster boy for a union dispute.

“It was an ongoing situation for two months,” David Vega, a floor technician and housekeeper who worked for Enloe’s subcontractor, Compass Crothall. “There’s not enough people [to keep the hospital clean.] Some people are doing two jobs at once.”

Vega said shooting the footage was “my own personal idea” and he was not coached by the SEIU-United Health Care Workers West, which supported him at a Jan. 5 press conference and rally. “I just wanted the matter to be resolved with the supervisor.” About a week later, Vega was fired, but he was told it was because of chronic lateness.

The union has been staging events designed in part to pressure Enloe to negotiate rather than continue to fight the April 2004 election results that narrowly voted in representation for service employees. On Jan. 5, a group marched down the street from the hospital to Enloe’s human resources department to confront officials about Vega’s dismissal and the disciplinary action taken against two Enloe employees who came to his defense.

Carol Linscheid, Enloe’s vice president of human resources, said Enloe complies with all health standards and nothing in Vega’s three-minute video raised concerns. “Our understanding is that they have enough employees and they are getting their jobs done,” she said. “Bins will fill up—they’re supposed to.”

She added that while Enloe has nothing to do with subcontractors’ employees, “Compass has assured us that they did not fire him for the purpose of stopping the complaint process.”

Vega, who had worked at the hospital for four years, said conditions had “gone downhill” since Enloe contracted with Compass in 2003. He said he told his bosses beforehand he was going to make the recording on his own time, and on Dec. 2, he showed the video to the hospital-based head of environmental services for Compass Crothall, Wendell Lawson. “I never thought I was going to get in trouble,” Vega said.

But when he came into work two days later, he was told he was being suspended pending an investigation. A week later, he was fired—for chronic lateness. Vega agreed he’d had a problem with punctuality, but no more so than his coworkers and the last instance had been two weeks prior.

Now, Vega, who had been making $11.25 an hour, is relying on his parents to help support himself, his wife and children ages 4 and 8. Vega, who has been denied unemployment benefits, plans to appeal the firing, and the SEIU has filed unfair labor practices claims, stating Vega was engaging in “concerted union activity” by reporting health and safety violations. It levied similar charges concerning the two suspended Enloe employees, Bev Erickson and James Harro, and concerning Cherie Templeton, a worker the union says Enloe officials intimidated, coerced and threatened.

Linscheid said that while Enloe has no control over what Compass does with its employees, the hospital did choose to suspend the two Enloe workers for five days without pay after a group demanded to see Lawson, “banging on the door” and then blocking it once it was opened. Linscheid said the actions were disruptive, frightening and against Enloe’s “core values.”

“This is an injustice,” said Kitty Courcier, a registered nurse and member of the California Nurses’ Association bargaining committee, at the Jan. 5 event.

Alongside the podium was an enlarged version of an informal complaint Oakland-based SEIU-UHW West employee sent to Cal-OSHA. The report alleged that medical waste was not being properly disposed, including biohazards that overflowed from trash containers.

Attorney and Chico City Councilman Andy Holcombe again came out to support the union’s efforts to get Enloe to accept the results of the close election rather than challenge them in court.

Stressing that he was not speaking on behalf of the city, Holcombe said he wasn’t picking sides on the issue of Vega’s firing, but when it comes to its refusal to recognize the union, “the hospital is just flat-out wrong.”