June 19, 2017

Charter Oak Health Center settles whistleblower case

Hartford-based Charter Oak Health Center and its former CEO have agreed to settle a six-year-old whistleblower case in which authorities had accused the company of firing three employees in retaliation for addressing public health concerns, the Labor department said Monday.

According to authorities, when the healthcare facility failed to adequately respond to tuberculosis exposure in December of 2011, three workers made efforts to raise awareness at the facility and publicly about the dangers. Then CEO Alfreda D. Turner terminated the interim senior vice president of operations, director of nursing and Healthy Start program coordinator two months later, on Feb. 24, 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) said.

The whistleblower investigation by DOL's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found that the terminations were unwarranted because the employees' actions were protected under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

The settlement filed June 16 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut resolves DOL's allegations that Charter Oak and Turner violated federal law.

The center, Turner and DOL have agreed to settle the federal court consent judgment and order, which provides for payment of lost wages to the three employees of $85,000, $30,000, and $10,000, respectively, before taxes. Charter Oak will write neutral letters of references for each.

The company also must post worksite and individual notifications about employees' rights as potential whistleblowers, authorities said.

Michael Felsen, DOL's New England regional solicitor, said employees have a "legal right to raise health and safety concerns about their workplaces without fear of retaliation."

Employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who raise various protected concerns or provide workplace health and safety information to the employer or to the government. OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of the OSH Act and 21 other statutes protecting employees who report violations in various industries.

The whistleblower investigation was conducted by OSHA's regional Office of Whistleblower Protection Programs in Boston.

Charter Oak issued a statement noting it has improved its infection control processes since 2012 and have had no further incidents.

"Charter Oak has not admitted to any wrongdoing and continues to believe that there were legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons for the terminations of each of the three individuals. As Charter Oak has undergone a period of dramatic positive transformation since the events
that occurred in early 2012, including a change in our senior management team, the time was right to the resolve the matter. Charter Oak continues to respect the rights of our employees and appreciates all they do each day."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to include Charter Oak's comments.

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