In April 2006, 26 Filipino nurses working in New York State resigned abruptly, some at the end of a shift and some just prior to their next shift. They say that they were the victims of unfair working conditions; in March of this year, however, 10 of them were indicted for patient endangerment.
Since the indictment on March 22 by the Suffolk County district attorney's office on Long Island, there has been growing outrage among the nursing and Filipino communities about what many see as the manipulation and mistreatment of these nurses by recruiters and employers. Lolita Compas, past president of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), the Philippine Nurses Association of New York, and the Philippine Nurses Association of America, is working to gather support for the indicted nurses.
“I am outraged at the exploitation of these nurses,” says Compas. “This brings back memories of the horrible recruitment practices of the 1980s.”
The 10 nurses, along with 16 other RNs and a physical therapist, are also embroiled in a civil suit for breach of contract and $25,000 in losses brought by the nursing homes and employment agency for which they worked since arriving in the United States between 2004 and 2005.
The nurses' story
In a May 9 letter to the president of the NYSNA, the nurses detailed their experience, writing that they were misled and taken advantage of by Sentosa Recruitment Agency in the Philippines and by Sentosa Care, LLC, which operates several nursing homes in the New York City area, and the Prompt Nursing Employment Agency in Woodmere, Long Island. They claim that working conditions, compensation, schedules, travel reimbursement, immigration visas, and practice permits were different from what they were promised when they were recruited. Although they had signed contracts with specific nursing homes, their work permits, paychecks, and identification cards listed them as working for Prompt Nursing Employment Agency, and many were placed in other facilities. Work permits and licenses were not available for some of them, contrary to what they said they'd been promised. Some had to work as clerks—at half the salary of an RN—or worked as RNs but weren't paid the same wages as other RNs at the facilities.
Maricelle Dealo, one of the nurses named in the civil suit, worked at Brookhaven Rehabilitation and Health Care Center in Far Rockaway. She told AJN that she was paid $10 per hour less for overtime than other RNs at the facility and was paid for 35 hours of work (for a 40-hour week) instead of the 37.5 hours for which she contracted. She also echoed the complaints about inadequate orientation, poor supervision (including working without the RN supervisor required by law to be there when a nurse holds only a permit or temporary license), and unsafe staffing. “For example,” Dealo said, “there could be two RNs responsible for 60 patients on the bariatric floor on the night shift.”
They said complaints were ignored by the nursing home and the employment agency managers and by the owner of both the homes and the agency. They then took their grievances to the Philippine Consulate in New York, who referred them to an attorney. The attorney, Felix Vinluan, filed a formal complaint, and the license of the Sentosa Recruitment Agency was suspended in the Philippines but was reinstated after Charles Schumer, a Democratic senator from New York, intervened. (According to Howard Fensterman, the attorney for Bent Philipson, owner of Sentosa Care, LLC, and Prompt Nursing Employment Agency and a Schumer campaign contributor, contacted Senator Schumer's office because the license suspension “occurred without due process because of the political connections of Vinluan, who is also a nurse recruiter and is seeking an advantage.” Senator Schumer's office did not return phone calls for comment.)
After the 26 nurses resigned in April 2006 at the end of their shifts or prior to reporting for their next shift, Sentosa Care, LLC, filed charges of patient abandonment. But the New York State Board of Nursing dismissed the charges, saying that the situation did not meet the requirements for patient abandonment. In Suffolk County, where Sentosa's Avalon Gardens Rehabilitation and Health Care Center is located, a grand jury indicted the 10 RNs who resigned from that facility and their attorney for endangering the welfare of a child and endangering the welfare of a disabled person. The facility provides care for disabled adults and children, some of whom are ventilator dependent. A conviction could mean jail time or deportation for the nurses. According to Suffolk County assistant district attorney Leonard Lato, the case will probably go to trial in the fall.
The owner's story
Philipson did not return calls for comment, but Fensterman told AJN that the “the nurses' complaints have no basis.” He blames Vinluan for “orchestrating the complaints and resignations to gain advantage for his own nurse recruitment agency.” (According to Juno Healthcare Staffing System, Vinluon is one of that agency's “external counsels,” one of several attorneys the firm may refer its clients to for legal services.) Fensterman, who is also the finance chairman on Long Island for Senator Schumer, says that the resignations came as a surprise to the nursing homes and that “they had to scramble on a weekend to find coverage.
“Health care providers need to provide notice to safeguard their patients,” he said. “What was the urgency in resigning with no notice, putting patients at risk?”
Meanwhile, the nurses are working in hospitals and other nursing homes and preparing for the trial. Compas says the lawsuit is designed to intimidate nurses still working for Sentosa Care. But with the support the nurses are receiving from the NYSNA, the American Nurses Association, and the New York Filipino community, it's unlikely that they will back down. The most upsetting aspect, says Dealo, is that “I trusted them. I didn't expect to be treated this way. And it's not just about the money or benefits, or what happened to us, but that the patients were not being treated the way they should.”
Maureen Shawn Kennedy, MA, RN, news director