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Nurses claim Zeeland health center honored racist patient requests

Audra Gamble/The Holland Sentinel • Apr 18, 2018 at 2:00 PM

ZEELAND — Six nurses have filed a lawsuit in federal court against a Zeeland health care center for allegedly honoring patients’ requests for white-only nurses.

The nurses, who are all African-American and work or did work for Providence Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, 285 N. State St. The health care facility caters to senior patients, offering memory care, rehabilitation, retirement living and assisted living.

The lawsuit was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan Southern Division on April 11, and the six nurses are being represented by attorney Julie Gafkay. The nurses listed in the lawsuit are Kimberly French, Gloria Reid, Tiesha Branch, Marquita Mills, Providence Ngoh and Valencia Washington. All six of the nurses are qualified certified nursing assistants, according to the lawsuit.

The six nurses are suing Providence Healthcare for racial discrimination over several years. Gafkay claims that some of the residents at the health care facility requested they did not want African-American nurses caring for them. Not only did Providence Healthcare honor that request, Gafkay writes in the complaint, but the patients’ requests were noted in their patient care plans.

“When (the six nurses) were assigned to care for said patients, they would be switched with a Caucasian employee, they would be told not to care for the patient,” Gafkay wrote in the complaint. “If they cared for the patients, they were called racist names by the patients who believed such requests were permissible because of (Providence Healthcare’s) failure to properly address.”

A formal complaint was made against Providence Healthcare Administrator Rick VandenBerg on Jan. 5, but the six nurses say after the complaint was made, working conditions got worse for those still working for the health care center.

On Jan. 11, the lawsuit claims, French was made to train another employee while also being assigned twice as many patients as normal. The lawsuit alleges that the health center also falsely accused French and Branch of abusing patients. French resigned in January and Branch was suspended in March.

Gafkay writes in the lawsuit that even though her clients complained about the allegedly discriminatory practices to managers, the racial harassment continued. This has caused her clients emotional distress, harassment, mental anguish, humiliation and damages to their reputations, according to Gafkay. The six nurses are suing for past and future wages as a result of their denial of being allowed to care for these complaining patients, compensatory damages for the mental and emotional distress, and punitive damages for violating federal employment laws.

Providence Healthcare and Rehabilitation is a branch of Providence Life Services, which is a religiously affiliated nonprofit organization. The organization is based in Tinley Park, Illinois, and has locations in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.

An employee at the Zeeland facility directed all questions regarding the lawsuit to Providence Life Services’ corporate headquarters.

“Providence takes its employees’ concerns about their working environment very seriously as it recognizes the importance of providing a positive workplace for its employees and other health care providers assisting its residents,” said corporate spokesperson Sheila King about the lawsuit. “Respecting the dignity of each person is a key value for both Providence staff and residents. We are not able to comment on these allegations due to the pending litigation, other than to confirm that Providence does not modify staff assignments based on race.”

An attorney for the nonprofit has filed a document in federal court waiving the delivery of a court summons and acknowledging the lawsuit. That attorney, Jennifer Naber, has until June 11 to file an answer to the six nurses’ complaint on behalf of the Providence Healthcare and Rehabilitation center in Zeeland.

Providence Life Services also operated Royal Atrium Inn and Royal Park Place in Zeeland, along with Emerald Meadows Assisted Living in Grand Rapids.

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