Psychiatric hospital is sued by ex-workers

Former employees of Aurora Las Encinas Hospital, a private psychiatric facility in Pasadena, filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday against the owner alleging that chronic understaffing has compromised patient care.

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on behalf of four former employees, says understaffing forced Las Encinas staff to work past the ends of their shifts, with no overtime pay, to complete work obligations.

The former workers are seeking an injunction to stop the alleged violations as well as unspecified restitution, legal fees and other penalties under California's labor code.

"Our investigation leads us to conclude that they don't have enough workers to take care of their patients," said Michael Seplow, a lawyer for the former employees.

Las Encinas officials did not respond Thursday to The Times' request for comment.

In addition to complaints about staffing levels, the suit alleges unsanitary conditions for employees.

Workers said employee bathrooms lacked soap, forcing them to bring their own. At least one bathroom at the facility has a toilet but no sink to wash up, according to the suit.

In some cases, workers who believed the equipment provided -- including blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes -- was substandard bought their own.

The employees also alleged that the hospital told its workers not to spend time studying for mandatory examinations, in order to avoid having to pay workers for that time.

Instead, the answers were provided with the exam, the suit alleges.

The lawsuit seeks class action status on behalf of not only employees at Las Encinas, but also workers at the three other psychiatric hospitals in Southern California run by Signature Healthcare Services, which operates under the Aurora name in Ventura, Covina and San Diego.

In interviews Thursday, former employees who took part in the lawsuit said that they were overworked and that the hospital failed to pay overtime.

"I felt I was unable to provide quality care to the patients," said Robin Motola, a nursing supervisor at Las Encinas who added that she quit in 2007 after concluding she could not provide safe staffing and quality patient care.

Cyndi Lane, a mental health worker who was employed at Las Encinas until June, said she was terminated while on medical leave after complaining about what she believed to be an inappropriate transfer of a patient to a less secure unit of the hospital.

The goal of the suit is to improve Las Encinas, she said.

The hospital has been under scrutiny since three adult patients died unexpectedly and a 14-year-old patient was raped there over a five-month period in 2008. In March, The Times reported that the hospital had been inspected at least six times in the previous year by government regulators, who have documented numerous failures in patient care.

Regulators placed Las Encinas officials on notice that the facility was in danger of losing Medicare and Medicaid funding if the problems continued. On May 1, Medicare informed Las Encinas that the facility was back in compliance and was no longer in danger of losing funding.

Las Encinas is in the midst of an effort to expand its facility that is being reviewed by Pasadena city officials.


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