Inside the Meeting Where LA County’s Ferrer Tried to Silence Co-Workers of Employee Who Committed Suicide

Days after RedState broke the news of the tragic suicide death of Heather Hughes, a Los Angeles County Department of Public Health/Environmental Health (DPH/EH) employee, the union representing those employees is demanding “an immediate investigation into the circumstances” surrounding Hughes’ death and “a comprehensive and detailed explanation of what occurred.

The demand also comes after Ferrer met with Environmental Health employees at the office in Koreatown where Hughes was stationed and heard more than two hours’ worth of detailed employee grievances, then sent a cursory email outlining steps that she and the Environmental Health leadership team – the very people accused of creating a hostile work environment and harassing and retaliating against employees – would take to “listen” to how employees are feeling.

RedState has spoken to multiple employees who were at that meeting about what occurred. Those employees were given anonymity in order to speak freely about the meeting without fear of retaliation.

Ferrer began the meeting by attempting to intimidate them into silence by calling the things they, the people who worked with Heather every day, had to say about what they knew about the harassment Heather faced in the workplace as rumors. Then, Ferrer said she was there to talk about how management can help them in the grieving process but refused to talk about the working conditions that led to Hughes’ death.

“What I sent out earlier today to clarify is that the rumor mill that’s going around, at least the rumors that I’m seeing, and I probably haven’t seen them all, really – we ask at this time for it to stop. It’s not helpful. There is an investigation that’s ongoing by the – by law enforcement, and I am not a person who’s able to talk about the results – the preliminary results of those investigations. We are, of course, doing our own internal review of all of the records that we have here. And again, when that’s – and turning those over as well so that there’s complete transparency on the information that we have and the information that law enforcement has….

Based upon information received from the LAPD, there is no ongoing law enforcement investigation into Heather’s death and there was no ongoing investigation as of Tuesday, the day Ferrer made those remarks. The medical examiner lists Heather’s cause of death as blunt force trauma and the method as suicide.

Ferrer continued:

“I also want to be clear that there are no recorded grievances that Heather has filed, okay, so just – that’s gonna be public record. Let’s be clear that she has not filed grievances. Many of you have filed grievances….”

However, one woman, a member of the union board of directors, disputed Ferrer’s statement that Hughes had not filed a grievance then shared why people felt they had to file a grievance to actually have action taken on a complaint.

So the first thing that I want to say is that you said that you were told that Heather never filed a grievance. But Judith [Serlin, union rep] told me yesterday she did. So I just want that out there. 
And then when someone said – why do you have to resort to grievances? We have to. Because from 2016 to 2021 I have filed 34 grievances. I have receipts. The reason I filed them, because that’s the only way I can document what was happening to me.
…[t]he only way I could document what was happening was to file a grievance. Thirty-four. Thirty-four grievances. So, you can’t stand and tell me, because I know. I lived this. I don’t care. But anyway, I lived this. I lived through this.

Every time a co-worker tried to speak about specific frustrations/grievances Heather had, including improperly-denied FMLA leave, denied telework for the report-writing portion of her job, and the extreme stress experienced during forced OT during the COVID pandemic, Ferrer interrupted to tell them they weren’t here to talk about those things. Employees then detailed their own grievances, which Ferrer denied knowledge of (despite documentation that she has known of them for years) then told them this wasn’t the time to address them because she needed “the data” before she could give knowledgeable input.

One thing expressed over and over during the meeting was the length of time it took for management to respond to employee requests on just about any issue, including regular vacation requests, reasonable accommodation requests, requests for PPE (unrelated to COVID), FMLA leave requests, telework requests, or requests to work in a different district closer to home. Waits of six months or longer for some requests are common, according to the employees, and if one repeatedly follows up or asks for reconsideration of a denial, they are retaliated against.

Another striking aspect of the meeting is the number of times people told Ferrer they are scared to bring up concerns, to ask questions, to ask for help, or to ask for things that are normal, routine things employees ask of their supervisors, because unless an employee is part of “the clique,” as one manager described it, none of their opinions, thoughts, needs, or solutions are wanted. And if someone speaks up at all the clique focuses its attention even more intently on that person.

In light of these descriptions of the atmosphere, Ferrer’s response to an employee who brought up a concern about workplace violence stood out. One former member of the employee union’s Board of Directors told RedState, “I also know for a fact that management was warned that low morale within the Division would lead to workplace violence.” And, DPH/EH employees are very sensitive to any indication of workplace violence after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, CA in 2015, which occurred during a Department of Public Health training event. So, one employee noted that Heather intentionally came to the workplace to end her life and said things could have turned out much differently had Heather walked into the office with a gun, then told Ferrer, “We are scared,” and asked what was being done to prevent something like a mass shooting at the office.

Ferrer essentially brushed their concerns aside, referencing basic active shooter training employees take when they begin employment then asking employees to “elevate” concerns about their co-workers’ mental health and equating employees who are exhibiting signs of stress and anxiety with 9/11 terrorists.

So, we cannot provide absolute certainty except that we – hopefully — as a new employee you should have taken training on responding to, like, active shooter events. I know we offered that, so that people actually here know what to do should that event happen.
And I think the third layer we have is all of you. Many of you know your colleagues and you know who’s struggling and you know who might need some additional support. And you can also, as a good, kind, compassionate friend, make sure that when you see signs of your friends or your colleagues that are worrisome, that you’re elevating those, because, you know…we all learned after 9/11, you know, you see something, you say something. Get some support.

When Heather’s co-workers told Ferrer that Heather was seeking help and support and was denied at every turn, Ferrer said she wasn’t there to discuss that topic.

Denial of FMLA Leave/Reasonable Accommodations

A woman who previously worked in EH and was still close friends with Heather told RedState that Heather had used up her sick time due to a medical condition, so had applied for FMLA leave and had a doctor’s note attesting to the need for such leave. On the day she died, according to the friend, she was told by a supervisor that it looked like the leave was going to be denied. Multiple sources have told RedState that Heather’s leave was approved by DPH HR on Friday, February 9, the day after Heather’s suicide.

One inspector in the meeting tearfully shared her experience with denial of accommodations/FMLA that one night after work her young child had a seizure in the bathtub and didn’t breathe for a full minute. She said his face turned blue as she was holding him and she thought she’d lose him. In the wake of that experience, while doctors were still trying to figure out why he was having seizures, she wanted an accommodation to be able to modify her work hours or location, or even do her required paperwork as telework so she could get to daycare by 5 PM to pick her son up. Because of the location of her work station, it routinely took her 90+ minutes to get to the preschool if she left at 5 PM.

She was a relatively new inspector and had just completed the 18-month on-the-job training program so she had not built up much sick or vacation leave. She said:

[W]hat I was told was to tough it out… If I need time, to take FMLA, but remember, you’re new, you might not have FLMA. Also consider you don’t want to take too much time off so you don’t get fired, because remember, you’re temporary and we can fire you for any reason. And then I still begged….

And then I had a chief suggest/hint that maybe you should stop asking for an accommodation because your name is getting this bad label now.

Her situation was never resolved, and the most Ferrer would say in the meeting is that they would “look into it,” which other employees chuckled at since that’s the response they say they always get from anyone in management when they raise a concern.

A former inspector whose FMLA request was initially denied shared their experience with RedState. The inspector’s child was hospitalized for four days, and it took HR three weeks to send him the correct FMLA forms. Then his request for FMLA leave was denied – after another week – because “it was not a serious health condition.” The union rep got involved and then then leave was approved.

Likely, Barbara Ferrer would shrug her shoulders and say, “Well, the leave was eventually approved,” so, no harm, no foul. But can you imagine having to deal with that type of bureaucracy – one whose initial answer is always no, and after a long delay – while your preschool-aged child is still on the mend from a serious illness? It doesn’t take a M.D. or even a Ph.D. to understand that people don’t bounce right back to normal after an illness that required a four-day hospitalization. And what gives an HR “FMLA coordinator” more expertise in determining what a serious health condition is than an admitting physician?

This is the bureaucracy that Heather Hughes was up against.

No PPE at Chiquita Canyon

Some workers in Environmental Health are assigned to various solid waste facilities across Los Angeles County, including the Chiquita Canyon Landfill near Castaic. An underground chemical reaction within the landfill has caused a “smoldering fire and pressure buildup” since at least October of 2023, emitting toxic and carcinogenic fumes well above the acceptable limits for short-term exposure.

Vapor hisses from surface fissures. Bubbling ponds of effluent form “rivers of odorous waste.” And at times, steaming hot liquid bursts into the air like a geyser.
Steaming-hot, contaminated water has also surged to the surface, oozing out of fissures. These hazardous spills have formed bubbling ponds and “ultimately rivers of odorous waste,” according to officials with the SCAQMD. At times, this polluted water has erupted with such force that it has shot into the air “like a geyser.”

The EPA has now been called in to lead the efforts to address the underground fire, which is ongoing, and its cleanup, but EH employees still work onsite and are part of inspections. During the February 13 meeting, a longtime employee told Ferrer that employees there aren’t even provided N95 masks for respiratory protection – let alone more sophisticated respirators that would likely be required under OSHA guidelines.

So, we talk about training. We talk about supporting our staff. We go to Chiquita Canyon. When covid hit, they found out we had N95 – your staff, not you, N95 masks. We work solid waste. They came and took our – they made us send them all our solid waste – all our N95s. We don’t have them back. We have little cheap ones [surgical face masks] in the brown paper bag….
They took our masks. Right now, they have our people…we have people going to Chiquita Canyon now….We have what they call, Dr. Barbara, probe 13. I want you to know that. They told our staff, don’t go to probe 13, because of all the odors and fumes. Dr. Barbara, that’s wrong. So what about the workers that are at probe 13? What about them? And if probe 13 is so bad, we shouldn’t even be there at all. So, you know, you always ask for solutions. I say, send all the supervisors to probe 13. Let them go. Let all them go and inspect probe 13, with that little — where’s the mask? This is what they give them. Come on. Put this on. Let — I’m talking about the chiefs and above. Send them out there. Let them do it.

Ferrer’s response was, “Did people ask and get told we wouldn’t give them respirator masks?” The employee said, “They said they would look into it. They would look into it.”

Dr. Nichole Quick then claimed that inspection staff at Chiquita Canyon were “getting appropriate PPE for going on site,” which the employee disputed. RedState has spoken to other employees who are knowledgeable about what is happening at Chiquita Canyon, and they confirmed the employee’s account.

Board of Supervisors Knowledge

One former employee who spoke to RedState said that as a part of his position on the board, he personally participated in meetings with Supervisor Hilda Solis’ office regarding the low morale in the office and retaliation from supervisors and how those factors affected recruitment and retention. He also participated in an almost two-hour meeting with Supervisor Kathryn Barger and her health deputy, Anders Corey, in early 2023.

The meeting was supposed to be for one hour only. No more than five minutes in, Ms. Barger asked me directly on a scale of 1-10 how things are going in my department. I told her a 2. I then described in detail the micromanaging, the disrespect, the poor decision-making, the lack of basic support from management, and how every time labor proposes a solution management will dismiss it outright or say they will get back to us but never do. The meeting didn’t stop until the supervisor realized how late it had gotten an hour and 40 minutes later.

In addition to these meetings, the Board of Supervisors knew there were issues with retaliation in DPH and specifically in Environmental Health given that they voted in July 2023 to approve a $200,000 settlement to Carl Kemp related to “allegations that [he] was subjected to race discrimination and retaliation.” Kemp had served as the Chief Communications Officer for DPH/EH, reporting directly to Liza Frias.

Ferrer was also extremely aware of the ongoing complaints in DPH/EH; she admitted numerous times during the February 13 meeting that she is aware of complaints and concerns many of the attendees had over the preceding years. It seems that these complaints/concerns were written off as just the rumblings of a disgruntled few instead of those few voicing the concerns of the vast majority of the employees in the department (approximately half of them signed a Vote of No Confidence in Frias in 2021, as reported in our February 12 story). The extremely high vacancy rate in the department and high turnover rate should have also given Ferrer a clue that something was amiss.

Participants in the meeting also spoke at length about the ways in which DPH/EH did not follow DPH’s own Health Officer Orders or California law during the COVID-19 outbreak. That subject will be the topic of the next installment in this series.

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