An Auburn man who worked more than four decades at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center has sued the hospital and its parent organization, Covenant Health, alleging he was fired in retaliation for reporting health and safety concerns at the Lewiston facility.
Paul Blais, 58, went to work for the hospital in 1978 and was fired last April, according to the complaint filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Portland. For the past 25 years, he was the director of environmental services and the housekeeping supervisor, and most recently earned $90,000 a year.
His attorney, Chad Hansen of Portland, said Friday that Blais has found a new job but his pay is substantially lower than it was at St. Mary’s.
Blais claims St. Mary’s and Covenant Health, which also owns St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor, violated the Maine Human Rights Act and the Whistleblowers Protection Act when they fired him.
He is seeking reinstatement, lost pay and benefits as well as unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. Blais also is asking U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen to issue an injunction ordering Covenant Health to stop engaging in illegal employment actions and to send a letter to every employee notifying them of the outcome of the case and stating that the organization will not tolerate retaliation in the future.
Karen Sullivan, spokeswoman for Covenant Health, declined Friday to comment on the pending litigation.
Blais reported to his supervisors in late 2018 “that he had serious concerns about understaffing and the cleanliness of the Medical Center, and that the conditions were putting St. Mary’s patients’ and employees’ health and safety at risk” due to low staffing levels, the complaint said. In early January 2019, Blais reported that at least 11 positions needed to be filled to adequately clean the facility and address the unsafe conditions.
That month, supervisors approved filling just five of a dozen vacancies that had been open since November and December, the complaint said. Blais said that supervisors told him in May 2019 that he could not hire more housekeeping staff without going over his budget, even though the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services had cited St. Mary’s for dust in its hospital rooms.
Blais went over the heads of his direct supervisors at St. Mary’s and complained to administrators at Covenant Health. For that, he received a written warning concerning “professionalism,” the complaint said.
He continued to advocate for more housekeeping staff into the early months of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic reached Maine. In April, he was fired after strongly objecting to a supervisor’s decision to refuse to help out Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston by laundering 250 sets of scrubs daily during the health crisis. Blais believed it would not strain St. Mary’s laundry operation to help out.
St. Mary’s and Covenant Health made news in the fall of 2019 when officials apologized after the Maine Human Rights Commission found that hospital employees created a “wall of shame” where they displayed confidential medical records of patients with disabilities detailing issues with their genitalia and bodily functions. The commission found that the exhibit had contributed to a hostile work environment.
In Blais’ case, the commission issued him a right-to-sue letter.
Covenant Health is based in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. In addition to the two Maine hospitals, it runs a third hospital in New Hampshire and long-term care facilities throughout much of New England.