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Wage theft, senior mistreatment alleged at Neawanna by the Sea

By Erick Bengel

The Daily Astorian

Former employees protest the living and working conditions at Neawanna by the Sea.

SEASIDE — Seven ex-employees of Neawanna by the Sea, a retirement and assisted living community in Seaside, are accusing the business of wage theft, mistreating some of its residents and allowing unsanitary living and working conditions to go unattended.

After speaking with local and state officials earlier this week, the group ­– Wesley Cordova, a former cook; Elodia Gonzalez, a former caregiver; Lynzee Johnson, a former medical technician; Kylee Lunsford, a former medical technician; Amy Patterson, a former medical technician; Matthew Perry, a former dishwasher; and Michealyn Schroeder, a former resident services director – gathered Wednesday afternoon to picket outside Neawanna by the Sea on North Wahanna Road.

Calling Neawanna’s practices “against our morals,” Schroeder said that the protest is not just about failing to receive back pay for overtime hours worked, it is about defending the elderly residents they have come to love.

“Seniors deserve a voice, and if (Neawanna by the Sea) is not going to give them one, we will,” Schroeder said.

Though some drivers shouted obscenities at them, many more honked in support and one – Darrin Howe, of Seaside – brought them bottled water.

Informal investigation

On Monday morning, the employees went on strike after speaking with their supervisors about discrepancies in their paychecks, Johnson said. They later spoke to the Clatsop County Department of Health, which referred them to the state Office of Licensing and Regulatory Oversight.

Based on the group’s concerns, Warren Bird, a policy analyst at the license and regulatory office, informally investigated Neawanna by the Sea’s facilities Wednesday. Bird said he walked through the building and spoke with nursing staff, kitchen staff, dining staff, residents and others.

He said that, though Neawanna appears to be understaffed – which can create stressors throughout the business – he didn’t see anything that would put anyone in danger.

“Nothing screamed at me,” he said. “I talked with the residents. They’re supportive (of Neawanna by the Sea).”

Though some seniors expressed dissatisfaction with the way things had been running lately, “they see there’s improvement. Things are turning around, and they’re happy with the way things are going,” he said.

Bird added that his team had surveyed the building July 30 and found very little amiss.

Adult Protective Services is also following up on some of the group’s concerns, he said, and Bird’s team will make an unannounced visit to Neawanna by the Sea in the near future.

Legal channels

On Tuesday, everyone but Patterson drove to the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries in Portland and gave sworn affidavits that will soon be brought before a judge.

While the six were in Portland, they learned that Neawanna by the Sea had chosen to terminate their employment.

When they returned to the facility Tuesday night to ask what was going on, they were told that they were no longer allowed on the property. A phone conversation between Schroeder and the head office, Westmont Living in La Jolla, Calif., confirmed that decision.

As of Wednesday, none of the seven have received their final paycheck.

If Tuesday – the day the group was informed that they had lost their jobs at Neawanna – is viewed as the day of their official termination, then Neawanna by the Sea may be acting illegally. According to state wage law, terminated employees are supposed to receive their last paycheck by the end of the business day following their termination.

Schroeder alleges in her affidavit that her termination was “in retaliation for my reporting and opposing workplace health and safety hazards, as well as for other protected activity.” The other six affidavits allege the same.

“We’re doing it for the residents,” Patterson said. “It’s about the quality of life that they have left.”

Picket line

At the picket line, which took place on public sidewalks, the group was joined by 64-year-old Neawanna resident Donell Wilson, who has lived in the facility for almost six years.

“I fully support (the protesters),” she said. “They took a big step doing this.”

Asked about the group’s grievances with Neawanna, Wilson said that Westmont Living is “ruthless” and “doesn’t care about the residents.”

In addition, “they don’t care about their help, they don’t pay them enough, they work double shifts all the time, then they get called in on their day off, and now they can’t get the money that they’ve worked for,” she said. “It’s just not right.”

In response to reporter inquiries, Westmont Living released the following statement: “Westmont Living is committed to providing premier care to our residents and a healthy work environment for our team members.”

“We follow all employment laws. We’re doing everything correctly,” said Kim Michel, Westmont Living’s human resources director. “Team members sometimes don’t understand the policies and procedures. ... We’re just trying to work with them, and we’re just moving forward. Our primary concern is not only to take care of our team members, but to take care of our residents, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

‘It’s just not right.’

— Donell Wilson

Neawanna by the Sea resident

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