Nursing Home Operator Accused of Indentured-Servant Scam

MANHATTAN (CN) – New York’s largest nursing home company faces a federal class action that accuses it of keeping hundreds of Filipino nurses in indentured servitude, making them think they would owe $25,000 or face jail time if they defected.

Unlike earlier lawsuits that took aim at SentosaCare’s level of care, the March 7 complaint led by Rose Ann Paguirigan accuses it of mistreating 350 nurses recruited from the Philippines over the last decade.

To get away with paying less than the prevailing wage, according to the complaint, SentosaCare forces foreign nurses to sign confessions of judgment before they leave the Philippines that say the workers will owe $25,000 if they try to leave before their contracts expire.

Brooklyn-dwelling Paguirigan says the judgments are meant to keep nurses in indentured servitude, but that the Nassau County Supreme Court deemed these penalties unenforceable in a 2010 ruling against SentosaCare.

The nursing home operator continues, however, to include the unenforceable penalty in its contracts with foreign nurses, according to the complaint.

Paguirigan says she herself faced a lawsuit last year by Prompt Nursing to enforce the $25,000 penalty.

“Plaintiff and other foreign nurses reasonably feared serious financial and reputational harm if they did not continue working for defendants,” the complaint states.

“The defendants have brought and threatened to bring the same types of baseless lawsuits against other foreign nurses to keep them from exercising their right to stop working for the defendants and seek other employment.

“The defendants’ baseless and abusive lawsuits against plaintiff and other foreign nurses are part of a longstanding pattern and practice designed to induce fear and prevent foreign nurses from seeking other employment.”

Paguirigan says SentosaCare and its agents have initiated 30 such lawsuits since 2006.

“The defendants have not prevailed in any of those lawsuits,” according to the complaint.

A lawyer faced SentosaCare’s wrath as well for advising foreign nurses who had stopped working for it. “Defendants did not prevail in that lawsuit,” the complaint states.

Paguirigan says the company successfully lobbied the Nassau County District Attorney to indict 10 foreign nurses who had stopped working for it, but the New York State Appellate Division rejected the indictment under the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In addition to SentosaCare, Paguirigan’s complaint takes aim at owners Benjamin Landa, Bent Philipson and Berish Rubenstein, as well as recruiter Francis Luyun.

SentosaCare is the largest for-profit nursing home group in New York state, with more than 25 facilities across the state. The company has faced a number of code violations and complaints over the years, according to a 2015 report by ProPublica.

Paguirigan says she contracted with SentosaCare in April 2015 to work as a registered nurse at its Golden Gate nursing home on Staten Island, but that she was began working as an RN manager at Spring Creek in Brooklyn last year. SentosaCare paid Paguirigan only $29 per hour, which is less than the prevailing wage for an RN manager, according to the complaint, and offered only 35 hours of work a week.

Nursing managers in New York City are paid on average $77,000 to $128,000 per year, according to the website payscale.com. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the mean average salary for registered nurses in New York state was $37,000 in May 2015.

The Philippines used to be regarded as a pipeline for nurses to the United States and elsewhere, but the nursing industry in that country has fallen on hard times in recent years.

John Howley, who is representing Paguirigan, has not returned a request for comment.

A SentosaCare spokesman could not be reached on the company’s main telephone line.