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Kaiser Employees: Fired for Whistleblowing

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (CN) - Kaiser employees were forced to work in unsanitary conditions and were fired when they blew the whistle, they say in a complaint filed in San Bernardino Superior Court.

Sandra Purnell and Leah Wilbur began working at the Kaiser Fontana Medical Center in the Environment Services (housekeeping) Department in 1996 and 1999, respectively, according to the complaint.

In August 2010, Kaiser contracted with Xanitos Inc. for housekeeping services, placing Purnell and Wilber, members of the local 7600 Steelworkers Union, under the direction of two sets of supervisors, one for Kaiser and another for Xanitos, the complaint says.

Both plaintiffs received injuries stemming from large and poorly designed carts Xanitos required them to use and both ultimately made workers' compensation claims, which Kaiser supervisors held against them, the lawsuit says. As a result, their complaints about unsanitary working conditions went unheard during special Unit Based Team (UBT) meetings arranged by employees and intended to bring complaints to the attention of supervisors and managers, according to the lawsuit.

One such complaint came on the heels of a major sewage flood in the hospital's basement, which contained raw sewage and "other" bodily fluids. Wilbur alleges supervisors ordered her and other employees to clean the mess up "with blankets and whatever was available," which involved standing in the waste without any protective personal equipment, the complaint says. A hazardous material cleaning company finishing the job after Wilbur complained.

She told supervisors that employees were in need of equipment like "gloves, goggles and proper footwear, which would be safely stored in the workplace for any such occurrence as such equipment previously placed was in disrepair and unusable when the flood occurred. Ms. Wilber brought up all of these issues at the next UBT meeting on June 13, 2012. On June 14, 2013, plaintiff was placed on suspension for pretextual reasons and thereafter terminated on June 22, 2012," the complaint says.

In addition, she claims the UBT was disbanded, offering no forum for employee complaints, the lawsuit says.

Another complaint comes from Purnell who says cleaning processes for patient rooms were modified once Xanitos took over cleaning services, leaving the rooms unsanitary and unfit for use, according to the lawsuit.

"Plaintiff was often confronted with walls that had blood and other bodily fluids splattered on them and plaintiff was required to make sure the rooms were cleaned in a way that would prevent the spread of disease and be ready for further patient care. Plaintiff advised management on numerous occasions that the rooms were not being properly cleaned. That they needed germicide chemicals to insure that they were disinfected and that the walls were not adequately cleaned as Xanitos merely wanted to use a vacuum as opposed to washing the walls with a wall mop as she had previously been taught prior to the contract with Xanitos," according to the complaint.

Purnell said she suffered "intense scrutiny" after returning from medical leave due to an injury from using Xanitos' carts and that supervisors intentionally spread jelly on curtains and other areas she was not required to clean, in order to set her up for termination.

She was fired in May 2013.

Purnell and Wilbur are suing for discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act. They seek general, exemplary, punitive and economic damages.

Kevin C. Boyle represents the plaintiffs.

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