A former administrator is suing Burlington Health & Rehab, saying the facility didn’t provide adequate protections against Covid during one of the largest outbreaks in Vermont.
Adelle Rebeor alleged in the suit filed on Oct. 28 that she wasn’t allowed to work from home, even though she was at high risk for Covid and could do her job remotely. She ultimately quit because of the restrictions.
Burlington Health & Rehab didn’t enforce Covid safety measures even while the virus ravaged the facility in March and April, Rebeor claimed. Over that time, 68 patients and staff tested positive and 11 people died.
Rebeor’s lawyer, Norman Watts said the facility “did not respond to Gov. Scott’s suggestions and then orders, at least initially, that they tighten up the sanitation. They didn’t have sanitizer. Clients were coming in without masks.”
The elder care home “failed to enforce standard pandemic-related safety measures … hence there was no safe working environment” for Rebeor or her colleagues, the suit alleges.
Burlington Health & Rehab spokesperson Lori Mayer said the company denied the allegations, but said she couldn’t comment on the pending case.
Rebeor is asking Genesis HealthCare, the Pennsylvania-based company that owned Burlington Health & Rehab, to pay her lost salary, damage, and legal fees. Genesis has filed a motion to determine the case by arbitration, according to Watts.
Rebeor started working at Burlington Health & Rehab in January 2016 and was eventually promoted to director of admissions. On March 20, when the first cases were reported at the Burlington facility, Rebeor asked to work from home, according to court documents.
She offered her bosses a doctor’s note confirming that she has asthma and is “high risk” for Covid. She also cares for her elderly, asthmatic father at home.
Rebeor’s supervisor allowed her to work remotely temporarily, but on March 31, told her to return to in-person work because staff were being tested for Covid-19 and it was “not fair” to allow some employees but not others to work from home. Rebeor filed for 12 weeks of unpaid family leave. Genesis allowed the unpaid leave initially, but then forced her to return to work after 30 days, the suit alleges.
Genesis allegedly told Rebeor to return to in-person work or she would be fired.
Rebeor argues that Genesis failed to reasonably accommodate her disability of asthma and that the threat to fire her constituted retaliation.
She also asserted that Burlington Health and Rehab violated state parental and family leave law and protections for complaints about patient safety.
Burlington Health & Rehab tried “to force [Rebeor] into a hostile and dangerous working environment,” and by threatening her to do so, effectively fired her because of her disability, the suit contends.
Scott’s Covid restrictions have faced only minimal testing in court. In September, a judge threw out a case in which a Rutland gym owner argued that pandemic rules constituted an “unlawful taking” of his business revenue. The state has the authority to enact such regulations, Judge Robert Mello ruled.
Will courts support state restrictions?
Watts said his client is one of many employees who have been discriminated against or denied safe working conditions during the pandemic.
“I’m hoping the case will represent a landmark holding that the judiciary supports the executive branch’s restrictions,” Watts said. “I don’t see why an employer should be permitted to be more relaxed. People in Vermont are taking it very seriously.”
The decision may not come for months. The closure of the courts due to the pandemic has led to a backlog of about 18 months, Watts said. He hopes the case will be argued in court rather than decided by arbitration. The case would “make the public point that Genesis was … not complying with Covid restrictions,” he said. “We want people to know about that.”
Rebeor wasn’t the only person to publicly criticize Genesis’s handling of the virus as it coursed through the facility. Some family members and city officials said Genesis should have taken more aggressive measures to prevent the outbreak. Residents said they were kept in the dark as the virus spread.
The outbreak, which resulted in 11 deaths, became one of the most deadly in a Vermont facility, second only to one at Birchwood Terrace Health and Rehab.
Genesis, falteringly financially in the wake of Covid outbreaks around the country, filed paperwork earlier this month to sell Burlington Health & Rehab and four other Vermont nursing homes. The national company lost $62 million in the third quarter, blaming Covid-related expenses and lower occupancy.
Three New York-based owners took over management of the facilities on Oct. 30.
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