A healthcare staffing agency that serves facilities throughout New York state has been accused of using illegal tactics to keep foreign-born healthcare workers stuck in low-paying jobs that some American-born workers no longer want.
Benzor Shem Vidal, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines, says Advanced Care Staffing forced him to work in “brutal and dangerous conditions,” including caring for 40 patients at once, and threatened him with serious financial harm if he tried to leave the company. According to his contract, the company can seek financial damages if Vidal were to quit within three years of starting work, including making him pay for legal costs.
“Mr. Vidal believed it was impossible for him to provide adequate care to patients but was also terrified to resign,” his lawyers wrote in a complaint filed last week. “He knew that his contract with Advanced Care Staffing purported to allow the company to pursue legal action against him, with potentially ruinous financial consequences, if he decided to terminate his employment.”
Advanced Care Staffing has yet to respond to the suit, but these kinds of cases are nothing new. Mandatory arbitration clauses have come under fire as of late. Employer-driven debt agreements require workers to compensate their employers for costs related to their departure, including training. They are also penalized if they quit before the end of their contract.
According to court documents, hundreds of healthcare workers have been sued for trying to quit or refusing work by staffing agencies with similar arbitration clauses.
In 2020, California passed a law that banned the use of forced arbitration agreements for workers involved with direct patient care.
Carmen Comsti, the lead regulatory policy specialist at National Nurses United, said these agreements often prevent nurses from speaking out against what they see as unsafe working conditions.
“These types of contracts are meant to silence the nurses complaining about their working conditions,” she said.
In June, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that it would be investigating employer-driven debt setups, which its director said may “have the potential to trap employees in place.”
“Arbitration is not just a shield that employers may use to insulate themselves from legal claims brought by their workers,” said Vidal’s attorney David Seligman, who directs the legal nonprofit Towards Justice.
“Employers use arbitration as a sword — as a way to undermine their workers, to make them feel trapped in their jobs and shift onto them additional extraordinary costs and fees, all because they have exercised their fundamental right to leave their job.”
Critics of these arrangements say employees are much less likely to get a fair hearing in arbitration because employers receive special privileges. For example, Seligman says the American Arbitration Association, which is administering his case, choose an arbitrator without his input after he requested more time to respond. He claims the association also refused to disclose how many Advanced Care Staffing cases it is currently reviewing.
Vidal said he hopes his case will ultimately prevent staffing agencies from enforcing these agreements.
“I felt trapped,” he said. “I’m hoping that they will try to make it better.”
An EMT turned aspiring paramedic, who wishes to remain anonymous, said she went through a similar experience when she thought about switching jobs earlier this year.
The company in question promised to help her with paramedic training while she worked as an EMT. When the company first hired her, she had to sign a contract committing to at least two years of work, but she didn’t think it was a big deal at the time. A few months in, the company refused to accommodate her training and, in order to quit, she would have to pay her employer some $10,000 in training costs.
“It felt like, well, you lied,” she said. “You told me that you’re going to help me get through this, you’re going to be there to help me succeed in the program, but you’re not.”
She is still afraid of leaving because she knows the company will try and collect the cost of her training.
“I’m feeling pretty petty about it so it would mean a fight in court for me,” she said.