While the Stanford Health Care - ValleyCare skilled nursing facility closed in what officials reported to be a precautionary measure for elderly patients at risk of contracting COVID-19, some of the 44 staff members who lost their jobs have different theories.

The group of frustrated employees spoke anonymously with The Independent via a Zoom conference call Sunday, June 7. Their names are being withheld, as requested. They initiated contact with The Independent in direct response to an article published in The Independent’s June 4 issue, in which ValleyCare CEO Rick Shumway said the closure was the right thing to do for the skilled nursing patient population.

“This is not because of COVID; it’s a financial move,” said one staff member, who said their five-star facility had been vetted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and was well-equipped to handle an influx of virus-impacted patients. “We had six rooms converted to handle COVID patients … the CDC approved us to be ready and then in April, senior leadership said we needed to start discharging our patients for fear that we would get a bad name in the press if we ended up with a COVID-positive patient.”

Denise Bouillerce, Director, Government and Community Relations, weighed in when presented with the claims of the former staff members.

“For several years, this 26-bed department has been carefully evaluated related to its operations, vision for the future and clinical utilization,” Bouillerce said. “While these discussions have been ongoing for an extended period, the patient safety issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately accelerated our decision to move forward with its closure.”

Bouillerce noted that at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak – and per federal, state and county guidelines – the organization began postponing elective procedures, as well as nonurgent activity. She said the skilled nursing facility was a department that fell into the nonurgent category.

“This decision to limit admissions was made out of an abundance of caution, and to ultimately reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission to a vulnerable, high-risk population,” she said. “There were many factors that were involved in the decision to close the Stanford Health Care – ValleyCare skilled nursing facility … For several years, this 26-bed department has been carefully evaluated related to its operations, vision for the future and clinical utilization. While these discussions have been ongoing for an extended period, the patient safety issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated our decision to move forward with its closure.”

Weeks prior to the facility’s June 27 closure announcement issued May 28, staff said they were told to take their 96 hours of paid time off, so that they would be available and ready to meet the demand of a possible COVID-19 surge. Upon return, they reported they were farmed out to other positions with reduced hours. Looking back now, they said they realized it was the writing on the wall.

“We kept asking, ‘What’s happening? What’s happening?’” a staff member said. “No one would tell us anything. We were working that Tuesday and Wednesday and even Thursday and then we all got texts to come to meetings spaced out in 15-minute increments on Thursday morning for a ‘strategic planning’ to talk about screening processes.”

At that point, staff members reported they were told to turn in their badge, keys, electronics and to take a box to fill with their belongings. They were then escorted from the building. The group concurred that none of the 44 were transferred, but they were told they could apply to jobs listed in Palo Alto. Another chief issue taken with Shumway’s words was the report that the employees’ severance packages included 30 days of medical coverage, when they said they only received two.

Bouillerce said the difficult decision was delivered to employees in individual meetings with the utmost professionalism and respect.

“Each impacted employee met one-on-one with his/her supervisor and (human resources) to understand the closure of the skilled nursing facility and to provide detailed information regarding the severance benefits,” she said. “The separation paperwork included contact information for our Stanford Health Care – ValleyCare recruiter as well as a current list of vacant positions for all Stanford Health Care entities (SHC-VC, SHC and UHA).”

Staff still took issue with how the layoff was conducted.

“There was no 30-day notice of termination. I worked the day before I was let go, and they waited for my shift to end, and then on my way home, they called me to say, ‘You’re coming in at eight o’clock; it’s just a strategic meeting,” one said. “After 21 years of working somewhere, you trust your organization; you trust the people you work with. You trust that if a closure is coming, they would give you a heads up … There was no consideration for our health or our well-being.”

Stanford Health Care – ValleyCare maintained it provided a separation package that would allow staff to keep pay, medical and vision benefits.

“All staff received 30 days’ pay in lieu of notice,” Bouillerce said. “All staff were also offered medical COBRA subsidy for two additional months of coverage. Specific to the represented registered nurses (RNs), the separation package that was offered is above and beyond what was required by the bargaining agreement … Our HR and leadership teams will continue to be available to the affected employees to answer questions about the benefits package and ensure that their coverage is maintained.”

The former skilled nursing staff said part of the sting of losing their jobs came from the fact that they were responsible for taking the lead on working with the CDC and implementing practices that helped make them a five-star, award-winning facility. They also noted they treated the facility like a home, using their own money to decorate.

One concluded, “We’ve given our heart and soul to skilled nursing (at ValleyCare).”