Three workers at Mercy Hospital of Buffalo – and three others no longer employed there – have filed a lawsuit against the hospital, alleging Black employees are routinely assigned the more difficult and dangerous work cleaning Covid-19 rooms while white employees get easier cleaning assignments.
The four Black plaintiffs suing the hospital for discrimination said they were bullied and intimidated. The two white plaintiffs joining them in the State Supreme Court lawsuit accused their supervisors of retaliating against them when they spoke out about how the Black workers were being treated.
The former and current employees are seeking $2 million.
"But we're more focused on the equitable relief, frankly, that the hospital should treat our clients fairly and without discrimination," said attorney Lisa A. Coppola, who, with attorney Jennifer Scharf, represents the workers. "The behaviors are reprehensible."
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In addition to the hospital, the lawsuit named as defendants Catholic Health and Metz Culinary Management Inc., as well as two of the Pennsylvania company's supervisors at the hospital.
With the recent rise in Covid-19 cases across the country, more government agencies and private institutions are requiring that workers get vaccinated.
"As a mission-based health care system that honors the dignity of each person, Catholic Health is committed to protecting our associates against any form of discrimination or harassment. We cannot provide further comments on pending litigation," according to a statement from Catholic Health, which owns the South Buffalo hospital.
Metz Culinary did not respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit alleges that Metz Culinary and Catholic Health assigned only the Black second-shift Environmental Services Department workers to clean the Covid-19 rooms, and when white employees helped, offered to help, or questioned why only the Black employees were assigned to the Covid-19 rooms, they were not permitted to help and, instead, were fired or retaliated against.
Metz Culinary employees supervise and manage all the Environmental Services Department employees, some of whom are paid by Metz Culinary, while others are paid by Catholic Health, according to the lawsuit.
Two Black workers who are suing remain employees in the department and report to a Metz Culinary supervisor who ultimately reports to a Metz Culinary employee individually named in the suit.
The other Black plaintiffs include a former Catholic Health employee, who quit in frustration, and a former Metz Culinary supervisor who quit after not getting a pay raise like his counterparts, according to the lawsuit.
Earlier this year, while in the presence of the former Metz Culinary supervisor, a white employee responded to a cleaning request by pulling on her skin and saying, “I don’t do that, see the color of my skin?” according to the lawsuit.
The former Metz Culinary supervisor said he was mocked "for being Black" by a white employee of equal rank, while his boss, another white Metz Culinary employee, refused to directly talk to him, according to the lawsuit.
The colleague of equal rank once looked at the Black Metz Culinary supervisor in a room full of people, opened a carton of chocolate milk, and while staring at him, said, “I sure love some chocolate milk.”
One of the current workers said she was called a “monkey” and a “retard” by the Metz Culinary supervisors named in the suit.
One of the white workers suing said she asked the two white Metz Culinary supervisors why only Black employees on her shift were assigned to clean Covid-19 rooms, according to the lawsuit.
One of them told her that “we do not clean Covid rooms,” referring to whites, according to the lawsuit. She said she was dismissed, berated and ultimately fired by Metz Culinary. She's currently a Catholic Health employee, but no longer works in the Environmental Services Department.
The other white employee provided a statement confirming that only Black workers were sent to clean Covid-19 rooms. Catholic Health fired her, citing time and attendance issues, described by the lawsuit as "a pretextual reason." Catholic Health "willfully retaliated against (her) for her use of family and medical leave," according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also alleges that Catholic Health and Metz Culinary failed to adequately train employees on Covid-19 protocols and that the workers' complaints about violations were ignored.
Despite the complaints, there were no carts containing personal protective equipment regularly available near the Covid-19 rooms for the EVS workers, according to the suit. Three of the workers sent to their union photographs of what they called disgusting, dangerous conditions in what they called "purportedly clean” rooms, including piled-up garbage, contaminated floors and surfaces and maggots on the fifth floor of the hospital.