Asleep at the switch? Discrimination alleged at retirement community
Three months after Charlene Smith was fired, she's still angry about what she calls her "wrongful termination," and she alleges there's a pattern of discrimination against minority employees at Westminster-Canterbury of the Blue Ridge.
"I was falsely accused of sleeping on the job," says Smith, a certified nurse assistant who had worked at the posh Pantops retirement community for more than a year. She says she was folding laundry at the end of a double shift at 7am April 4 when a nurse she'd never seen before came in. When Smith returned to work that afternoon at 3pm, she was called into the nurse manager's office and told she was fired for sleeping.
"I was so upset," says Smith. "I was hysterical. I couldn't believe they'd make up something like that."
Smith contends that she was not asleep, but if she had been, she should have been written up like a white employee who was found sleeping three times, including once by the facility's chief executive officer– but who was not fired until a month after Smith's termination.
And that, Smith alleges, is a pattern at the facility, where black employees are fired for things that white employees do with impunity. She's filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
"I would have to disagree with her," says Suzanne White, director of human resources at Westminster-Canterbury, which employes 270 employees, 41 percent of whom are minorities. "We are a nondiscriminatory organization based on sex, race, religion, national origin, and age." White says that in the 16 years the facility has been open, there have been no other EEOC complaints.
Smith says there is only one black employee in management and no full-time black nurses work day shifts.
"There is one African American in our leadership group," confirms White, and that translates to eight percent of management.
White says Westminster's policy for those found sleeping is termination. "There is an investigation, then you meet with the employee to review. This is confirmed by the supervisor and a coworker," she explains.
That's not Smith's understanding of the consequence of dozing on the job. "The policy says send the employee home," she says. "That's what I heard at the [October 25, 2007, nurses] meeting. They will be sent home and talked to the next day. The policy says nothing about termination– even if it happened." She says she was never counseled about the incident.
"Maybe she didn't view it that she was being counseled," says White. "They asked her if she had been sleeping, and she confirmed the allegation." White adds that she was not present at Smith's exit interview, but says, "I have no reason to doubt that."
Smith vehemently denies that she was sleeping, and shows a reporter a copy of the termination papers she refused to sign because, she says, it was untrue: "It wasn't counseling– it was termination. I had no previous write-ups and no verbal warnings."
She also shows a stack of letters– recommendations from her previous employers at Piedmont Virginia Community College, UVA, and attorney Steve Rosenfield.
Buckingham native Smith, 37, a single mother, says she got her CNA license in 1990 so she'd always have a job to fall back on.
"I've never had any complaints from the Nursing Board until now," she says, the result of her dismissal from Westminster-Canterbury. "My unemployment benefits were turned down because of false accusations. Now they're trying to harm me by having my license suspended." She also says that by being fired on the spot, she lost her accrued vacation pay.
"If you leave without notice or are terminated, you forfeit those hours," White confirms.
Blondie Paige has worked five years as a part-time nurse at Westminster-Canterbury, and she says she's seen incidents that seem discriminatory, such as the white CNA who was not fired on the spot for sleeping. She mentions an African-American employee who worked there 16 years with no complaints and was fired for "patient abuse" on the word of another employee when he accidentally squirted water in the face of a resident he was bathing.
When Paige started working at the facility, she says, there were no other black nurses. "They kept saying, no black nurses would apply," says Paige. "I knew nurses who applied and were told there were no positions. One unit there still has no black nurses.
"I think the facility thinks because it's private, no one will complain," she continues. "They say we're in a right-to-work state– that's an implied threat."
Westminster does have a formal grievance procedure for employees who believe there's been an unfair application of procedure, White says, as well as an open door policy with management. "Every employee has a copy of that in the employee handbook," she says. "We review it on the first day."
"When I was hired, no one gave me a handbook," says Smith, nor was she offered the grievance options when she was terminated. Now she's looking at other grievance options: she's retained an attorney.