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Intensive care unit nurses discover St. Joseph Hospital's management secretly spied on them

Nurses in the intensive care unit at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka have discovered that video cameras disguised as smoke detectors were secretly installed in their unit -- including in a private break room with lockers where some of them change their clothes. The California Nurses Association has filed a grievance demanding surveillance be stopped and asking for documentation on the cameras and anything they recorded.

Needless to say, some of the nurses are feeling creeped out.

"I feel very violated," said one nurse who came to the Journal's office on Monday to talk about the spy cams. She asked to be anonymous. "I walk through the halls, I walk by these people in suits, and I wonder, 'Gee, I wonder if they've seen me change. I wonder if they were watching me.'"

Another St. Joe's ICU nurse who joined the interview -- Kathryn Donahue, who is on the CNA Board of Directors -- said a couple of nurses discovered the spy cams on Sept. 2. It was, ironically, right after the hospital had installed a new camera system to monitor exits. The new "fisheye" cameras -- which are not disguised -- are dark shiny globes stuck to the ceiling throughout the unit, each with an obvious lens peeking out of an opening. The nurses were studying the new fisheye cameras, and that led to their scrutinizing one of the "smoke detectors" -- which had been installed sometime earlier, in the spring, recalled the nurse.

"And one of the nurses said, 'Come and look at this, that looks like a lens,'" said the nurse. They opened it up and discovered it was indeed a camera. And there were more like it. One nurse confronted the ICU interim manager, who confirmed that it was a camera. The nurses called their labor reps -- Donahue and Ian Selden, the union's labor representative in Oakland. Selden filed a grievance the next day in a letter to Bob Sampson, vice president of human resources at St. Joe's. Donahue, who is the union's local nurse representative, put up a copy of Selden's letter to Sampson on all the CNA bulletin boards in the hospital, along with a flier.

The flier asks, "Is St. Joe's our new Big Brother ... or just another Peeping Tom?" It threatens legal action. Donahue said she keeps having to put the CNA letter and flier back up, however, because management keeps taking them down.

Selden's letter says the installation of surveillance equipment in the workplace is a mandatory subject of bargaining, and calls management's flaunting of that requirement an "outrageous and shameful violation of [the nurses'] privacy rights, as guaranteed under state and federal law."

This Tuesday, the hospital's vice president of marketing and public relations, Laurie Watson-Stone, issued a details-scant statement denying the CNA's allegation that the hospital violated staff privacy.

"We are deeply troubled by the CNA's accusations," says the statement.

It quotes Sampson, who says the surveillance cameras were installed and operated as part of an investigation "in response to serious allegations about inappropriate conduct of certain ICU staff members ... These surveillance cameras helped provide a fair and thorough internal review that assisted us with maintaining the high quality of care that our clinicians and staff have worked so hard to establish."

Donahue said the smoke-detector cameras went up not long before St. Joe's suspended four ICU night-shift nurses and a supervisor, on June 17. The nurses were later fired, and while St. Joe's did not give reasons, one of the fired nurses told the Journal they were accused of, among other things, over-sedating patients, improperly delivering medications, surfing the Internet and playing guitars.

Donahue said the hospital has not responded to the CNA's demands. On Sept. 9, however, Sampson spoke to the nurses before one of their meetings, said the other nurse. He told them five hidden cameras were installed in ICU in June, were turned off less than two weeks later on June 24, and that the camera in the locker room had not been turned on, ever. In a memo posted on the bulletin boards the next day, Sept. 10, Sampson reiterates that point, saying the camera in the locker room "was never turned on due to mechanical/wiring problems," and that the hospital didn't know people changed their clothes in that room. "Contrary to CNA's accusations, no employees were observed or video-taped changing clothes," says the memo.

"But you know what? There was intent," said the nurse. "And that's scary. Besides that, I don't believe them. But let's say they're being forthright, and they never did record -- they intended to."

Donahue, who's been an ICU nurse at St. Joe's for 23 years, said she thinks the secret cameras -- and even the new fisheye cameras, which can see into every corner of the unit and potentially violate a patient's privacy, she said -- are intended less for patient safety and more for keeping tabs on the nurses, to make them more compliant and productive. But the real problem in St. Joe's ICU, she said, is management.

"This ICU has not had an effective manager for over a decade," Donahue said. "So they are chopping off the nurses' heads. But where's their culpability? When is management going to step up and take some responsibility?"

The other nurse said she's given up waiting for an apology. "It's pointless now. They've created an extremely unhealthy work environment. It's very hostile, it's very punitive right now. You can palpate it. I go in now and, since I found out about those cameras, I kind of have this lump right here," she said, pressing on her solar plexus. "Just this knot right here."

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About The Author

Heidi Walters

Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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