News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

June 01, 2020

Highland Hospital denies sexual assault response workers PPE, accommodations

By Casey Busher

Since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, management at Highland Hospital has refused to provide the Sexual Assault Response and Recovery Team (SARRT) proper personal protective equipment (PPE) or the option to work remotely. Instead, management has urged workers to engage in unsafe practices. For example, the hospital has forced employees to reuse single-use masks with multiple patients, and has asked SARRT workers to take on extra patients from nearby hospitals (which are not sending sexual assault staff to work due to the risk of exposure).

Highland’s SARRT team was designed to serve survivors of sexual assault, and has since expanded to advocate for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual exploitation. The seven SARRT workers have specialized training in victimology. 

All seven SARRT workers have taken leaves of absence since the shelter-in-place order went into effect out of concerns for their safety. But most have now returned to work out of financial necessity.

Irma Romero has worked at Highland Hospital on the SARRT team since 2018 and is still out on leave. She said, “I really want to continue serving the community and I wish I could, but I had to make the choice to take care of my family — I care for my two elderly parents and am a single parent of a nine year old. We’ve asked to continue serving our patients, and what’s been really disappointing to me is that management hasn’t been supportive.” 

Wendy Dutton, another SARRT advocate, has worked at Highland Hospital for thirty years and is also on leave — both she and her son are at high risk for Covid-19. She explained that, in addition to accommodations to staff the 24-hour hotline the SARRT workers respond to, there are safe physically distant alternatives to advocate for patients who come in through the emergency room. “There are appropriate ways you can set it up: we have a room next to our exam room and have a computer already in there. It’s not the best, it’s not the same level of service. But in the type of crisis that we have, we’re all trying to find a way to make it so everyone is safe.”

But when the SARRT workers brought up these alternatives, management stalled for time and avoided workers instead of working to keep them and their patients safe. Dutton said, “There was a meeting that was initially set up at a higher level, but it was canceled and then rescheduled, and they would have no communication with us.”

Romero had a similar experience: her manager failed to offer a plan to accommodate her request to work from home, and denied her first two requests for leave. “For me, it’s disheartening that she would not sit with her employees and say, ‘How can we make this work?’”

“A unifying struggle against management”

All seven SARRT workers sent a message to management by deciding to take leave simultaneously.

Romero said, “They expected us to continue coming into the ER without appropriate PPE and not only take care of our patients but the patients that other hospitals were sending, because they stopped sending their sexual assault response teams into work because of the pandemic.” 

Dutton added that she’s been heartened to see the team rally around safer working conditions: “As far as for us as a unit, it’s a very unifying struggle that we’re having with our management. And that doesn’t always happen. And I think that’s a very positive thing.” 

“Management doesn’t care about protecting our patients or our health”

Dutton said, “Before you had this concept of the Sexual Assault Response & Recovery Team, the victim would go into the ER, and see somebody who wasn’t trained in sexual assault. We realized that sexual assault survivors needed something better — a lot of them weren’t stepping forward, and those who were had to deal with evidence being collected in a way that didn’t center the survivors.” 

By denying SARRT safe working conditions, Dutton said, “The message [management] gave us is, they don’t care about protecting us from getting the virus, and they certainly don’t care about protecting our survivors.”

Now survivors are again facing the trauma of having the physical evidence of their sexual assault collected without a trained advocate. Rather than allow the SARRT advocates to adapt their services to keep themselves and patients safe, management is sending in substitute healthcare workers from the hospital registry — workers who are stressed, overworked, under-protected, and who lack sexual assault response training.

Monolingual Spanish-speaking patients in particular are not able to access the same level of care. Romero said, “I was able to work with a monolingual Spanish-speaking population that doesn’t have as much access to services due to language barriers.” As a LCSW, Romero used to provide bilingual therapy services to survivors through the follow-up process as well — a service Highland Hospital Management is now denying to her patients by not allowing her to take these calls over the phone. 

Covid-19 lays bare a broken healthcare system under capitalism

Dutton said that Highland prioritizes profits over patients. “Highland is run like a corporation. I’ve been there for over 30 years, when it was a community hospital. It’s been mismanaged ever since it was out of county control.” Austerity, privatization, and corporatization of Highland Hospital and other hospitals and clinics in the Alameda Health System (AHS) have set the stage for harmful practices that put patients and workers in far greater danger than Covid would at a properly funded and managed hospital.

Highland Hospital is publicly funded and not-for-profit, and serves mostly patients of color. Though it is a hospital for residents of Alameda County and is funded by residents’ taxes, it has been run by an independent and unelected board of trustees since 1998. The executives’ and trustees’ mismanagement of public funds has led to the hospital’s long standing debt and resulting understaffing, according to a 2015 Alameda County Grand Jury report

Highland nurse John Pearson said, “It’s what you’d expect from a county hospital system with austerity funding and rampant mismanagement: massive budget cuts to direct patient care to fund a software upgrade, contracting out, short staffing, lack of basic equipment, dirty facilities, lack of training and breaks, and issues with safety and bad bosses.”

In addition to horrifying and unsafe conditions for patients and workers, AHS and Highland Hospital are retaliating against workers who speak out. In April, Highland fired a nurse who wore a trash bag as PPE because the hospital had not provided enough protective gowns. 

Forcing employees to treat patients in these dangerous conditions is not necessary, and Highland Hospital and AHS executives know it: if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be panicking about workers exposing their illegal and unethical practices. The mismanagement of the SARRT workers’ request for PPE and accommodations is part of a much larger pattern of austerity and poor leadership.

For workers, patients, and the community to survive this crisis, we must fight for a solution that fits the scope of the problem — one that fundamentally changes our health system’s priorities to put people over profit, and that brings essential health services under public and democratic control.