by Maria Sunantha Quibilan/Asianjournal.com
TEN nurses from the Philippines and their attorney who are facing criminal charges in New York for conspiracy and child endangerment are scheduled for trial on January 28.
On April 7, 2006, the nurses resigned from their jobs at Avalon Gardens in Smithtown. All claimed to have been subjected to demeaning and unfair working conditions, such as being sent to work at facilities they never signed up for and being made to perform tasks below their job descriptions. In addition, there were complaints regarding work schedules and salaries.
The 10 were joined by 16 other Filipino nurses and one physical therapist who also quit their posts at other facilities but were not criminally charged because they were not caring for terminally ill children.
According to the prosecutors, the 10 nurses’ resignation without notice jeopardized the lives of the terminally ill children they were in charge of monitoring. Although none of the patients suffered ill effects, the allegation states that the nurses were aware that their sudden resignations would make it difficult to find replacements.
Lawyers for the 10 nurses, however, claim that one of the nurses, Maria Theresa Ramos, had stayed behind while letters of resignation were being submitted. They assert that Ramos remained on duty for an additional four hours past her shift to make sure the patients would be given proper attention and care.
If convicted, the nurses could serve up to a year in jail on each of 13 counts, have their nursing licenses revoked and face deportation.
The nurses have the support of the American Nurses Association (ANA) and the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), as well as several Filipino organizations in the US.
On June 1, 2007, ANA and NYSNA issued a press statement condemning the exploitation of immigrant nurses by unscrupulous US employers and calling for better enforcement of immigration laws.
“These brave nurses deserve the nursing community’s full support because they refused to remain in a situation where patients were being denied the kind of care and staffing they deserved,” ANA President Rebecca M. Patton, RN, MSN, CNOR was quoted as saying. “The real patient endangerment lies in the deplorable conditions that led the nurses to leave,” she added.
Defense lawyers see the case as an unprecedented use of criminal law in a labor dispute. Supporters fear the future implications of prosecuting nurses who quit their jobs.
Furthermore, the nurses contend that they are facing prosecution because of political influence. They claim that Democratic officials Sen. Charles Schumer and Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota took interest in the case because of close personal, political and financial relationship with the owners of Sentosa Health Care which operates Avalon Gardens. Both Schumer and Spota deny such allegations.
“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 Sentosa.
Defense lawyers also point out that two separate state-agency investigations have cleared the 10 nurses and yet the case is proceeding to trial. In response, Spota said that the legal standards for a prosecution are not the same as those of the state agencies.
The Philippine government has given attention to the case, with the Senate and House of Representatives holding investigations last month.
Last year, 120,000 Filipino nurses were imported by the United States in order to ease its nationwide nursing shortage. These Filipino nurses come to America in the hopes of a better life.
“Coming to the United States is like the fulfillment of your nursing career,” said Ramos, who came to Long Island in 2004. Although she has found new employment with the Stony Brook University Hospital, the prospect of conviction remains a devastating thought. “How can it happen in America?” she said.