Patients suffering from kidney failure marched on the Irvine offices of DaVita on Friday to declare that the dialysis corporation is failing them. Joined by clinic workers and SEIU United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) union members, the protesters demanded DaVita reinstate five employees they claim were fired in retaliation for supporting unionization efforts and for promoting the Dialysis Patient Safety Act (SB 349).
"We see these workers three days a week and have come to know them like family," says Lisa Anderson, a DaVita patient from Perris, in a press statement. "It's stressful when DaVita fires one of them because we expect them to care for us when we're in the clinic, and all they were doing was trying to help us and themselves."
Megallan Handford, one of the five fired employees, worked at several DaVita facilities around Orange County for over a decade before being let go in October. "My termination was based on my union activity," Handford tells the Weekly. "I visited a clinic in Ontario where I had some friends. Because of my union activity, they thought I was there trying to organize employees during my off day." Handford has taken a financial hit since being fired, but hasn't stopped any of his advocacy efforts.
"The termination of these former teammates had nothing to do with their advocacy for or against the legislation or support for the union," Kevin Downey, DaVita's Senior Manager of Communications, told the Weekly. "They were terminated because of numerous actions, including some that threatened patient safety. Special interests are mischaracterizing these terminations for their own purposes and [are] putting politics before patients."
SEIU-UHW says that nearly two dozen workers were fired or disciplined because of efforts like Handford's since October. Last month, state legislators, including Senator Josh Newman (SD-29), wrote a letter addressed, in part, to Irvine DaVita Group Vice President Brian Stern urging the corporation to respect the workers' right to unionize. "DaVita's retaliatory behavior is creating a hostile work environment for employees and is detracting from your mission to provide great care for dialysis patients," the letter reads.
The five legislators cited the case of Emerson Padua, a patient care technician who got fired less than a day after speaking in favor of unionization and SB 349 in Sacramento. Authored by Senator Ricardo Lara, the legislation already passed in the State Senate two months ago. It awaits a vote in the State Assembly. SB 349 would cap the daily patient case load per nurse at eight and mandate a 45 minute transition time between dialysis treatments.
"The industry considers it an empty chair, but it's not," Handford says. "What's going on in that 45 minutes is that you have a patient recovering from dialysis treatment and it allows for complete sterilization of the dialysis machine and chair. The industry's concern is money, profits-over-patients."
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DaVita disagrees. "DaVita is part of a broad coalition of physicians, nurses, patient advocates and others who believe SB 349 will be dangerous for patients," Downey adds. The corporation is part of DialysisPatients1st coalition which counts the Orange County Business Council and Orange County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce among local supporters.
Before being fired, Handford worked at 20 or more DaVita facilities in OC, an experience that gave him unique insight into how differently facilities operated. "I got a chance to see the same situation going on in all of these clinics that I had been working at," he says, claiming patient assessment loads reached 20 per day at times. "They were all short-staffed and patients were bleeding all over the place."
Handford is ready to be reinstated and get back to work. He recalls a patient from a DaVita Anaheim facility recently contacting him after finding out about his termination. "He just wanted to thank me for saving his life," Handford says. The patient suffered a heart attack at the clinic when Handford recognized what was happening and called 911. But he had to justify his actions to a doctor even though the patient ended up undergoing a successful triple bypass surgery that night.
"I cannot be intimidated," Handford says. "My resolve is that I'm not going to stop until there's a change in dialysis."