Nurses charged for quitting jobs
Published: Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 8:02 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 8:02 p.m.
RIVERHEAD, N.Y. - For months, the nurses complained that they were subject to demeaning and unfair working conditions — not what they were promised when they came to America from the Philippines in search of a better life. So they abruptly quit.
But in doing so, they put more than their careers at risk: Prosecutors hit them with criminal charges for allegedly jeopardizing the lives of terminally ill children they were in charge of watching.
The 10 nurses and the attorney who advised them were charged with conspiracy and child endangerment in what defense lawyers say is an unprecedented use of criminal law in a labor dispute. If convicted of the misdemeanor offenses, they face up to a year in jail on each of 13 counts, and could lose their nursing licenses and be deported.
The case has unfolded against the backdrop of a chronic nursing shortage in the United States. All of the defendants were from the Philippines, which exported 120,000 nurses last year.
One defendant was a doctor back home and a top scorer on the country's medical board exams, but decided it was more lucrative to be a nurse in the United States. Others had respectable medical jobs back home and viewed their work in New York as a dream come true.
"Coming to the United States is like the fulfillment of your nursing career," said Maria Theresa Ramos, who arrived on Long Island in 2004.
The nurses are backed by several Filipino organizations in the U.S., as well as both the New York and California state nurses associations, which fear prosecuting nurses who quit their jobs could set a bad precedent.
Prosecutors say the nurses' resignations — without notice — on April 7, 2006, jeopardized the lives of children at Avalon Gardens in Smithtown, where some of the patients are on ventilators and required constant monitoring.
None of the patients suffered ill effects, but an indictment alleges the nurses knew their sudden resignations would make it difficult to find replacements. Their trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 28.
The nurses claim that they were sent to work at facilities they never signed up for, and made to perform tasks they deemed demeaning and below their job descriptions. There were also disputes about scheduling and pay. Sixteen other nurses and one physical therapist also walked off the job at other facilities, but they were not charged because they did not care for terminally ill children.
Lawyers for the 10 nurses say one of the nurses remained on-duty when resignation letters were submitted. They insist that the nurse — Ramos — stayed four hours past the scheduled end of her shift to ensure that the patients received proper care.
The nurses contend they are facing prosecution because influential Democratic officials — Sen. Charles Schumer and Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota — took interest in the case at the behest of an attorney for Sentosa Health Care, which operates Avalon Gardens.
The defense has asked Gov. Eliot Spitzer to appoint a special prosecutor, a request being considered in Albany.
"If I could get a special prosecutor, I have no doubt that this case would be dismissed in a heartbeat," said defense attorney James Druker, a former federal prosecutor who represents all 10 nurses. "I just want somebody fair and independent."
Spota opposes a special prosecutor and insists he exerted no special influence on the case.
"Their reason for asking for a special prosecutor is they say I have a close personal, political and financial relationship with the owners of Sentosa," Spota said. "Wrong. I don't have any relationship."
The case also has attracted attention in Manila, where hearings in the Senate and House of Representatives were held last month.
After the nurses complained they were being mistreated, a suspension order was issued against a Sentosa Health Care affiliate in the Philippines. But the suspension was later lifted, and the nurses believe that decision was politically motivated because Schumer got involved.
He sent letters in June 2006 to the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration and the Philippines Labor Secretary, and later to Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, asking that they meet with Sentosa representatives and then "take any actions that you consider appropriate."
The POEA head, Rosalinda Baldoz, said the dismissal of the nurses' complaint was not the result of political influence.
Defense attorneys noted that Schumer's Long Island finance chairman, attorney Howard Fensterman, also represents Sentosa. Fensterman's office referred calls to a public relations representative, who derided the allegation.
"This is on its face and in its substance a pathetic smokescreen to divert attention from the fact that 10 nurses got up and left pediatric patients on ventilators in a deliberate act of labor sabotage," said Gary Lewi, speaking on behalf of Fensterman and Sentosa.
Schumer said the letters were the result of his efforts to ease the nationwide shortage of nurses and to seek due process on behalf of a New York company. He said they had "no connection whatsoever" to political donations made by Sentosa executives.
"There are many times that a company will call us up and say a foreign country is treating it unfairly. I regard it as part of my job to help New York companies," he said.
Defense attorneys say they are perplexed why the case is proceeding to trial because two separate state-agency investigations cleared the 10 nurses. Spota said the legal standards for a prosecution differ from those of the state agencies.
He said the nurses and their attorney had the chance to tell their side at a grand jury proceeding — an unusual event in a misdemeanor case — but all declined to testify.
Ramos and the other nurses have since found employment elsewhere. She works at Stony Brook University Hospital, also on Long Island, but still tears up with emotions at the prospect of being criminally prosecuted.
"It's really devastating for us. ...How can it happen in America?" she said.
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