Caregiver and elderly patient

Reporters are always hunting for timely news pegs to resurface evergreen stories. More than a year after Jennifer Gollan’s arresting investigation into labor abuses against caregivers, coronavirus has offered a sobering hook: the pandemic that has wreaked havoc on Americans living and working in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Already, more than 40 percent of U.S. coronavirus deaths have been connected to nursing and long-term care homes. “There’s no better time than now to understand the systemic problems in this industry: the neglect, exploitation and basically the blind eye that some regulators have taken to assisted living workers,” says Gollan, an Emmy Award-winning reporter for Reveal from the Center of Investigative Reporting who covers labor and corporate accountability.

Jennifer Gollan

Jennifer Gollan

The resulting four-part series for Reveal  is both immersive and infuriating. It’s also painstakingly reported, and strikes a delicate balance between data, reconstruction from public records and narrative momentum with compelling characters who tug on your heartstrings. When I first read this story, I was struck by how deftly Gollan contrasts operators who profit from greed and care workers who pay the human price of it.

Reveal also co-produced a radio show with PRX and a special television report for PBS NewsHour exploring these findings, and Gollan wrote two follow-up pieces about impact of the investigation. Her stories prompted a congressional hearing, pledges of prosecution and calls for legislative remedies. The series earned a slew of awards — including from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Alliance for Women in Media  Gracie Award and the prestigious Hillman Prize for Web Journalism, which honors investigative and in-depth reporting “in service of the common good.” The project was distributed through the Associated Press in more than 200 outlets.

Telling this story clearly was an exercise in empathy and tenacity. I spoke with Gollan about her smell test for investigations, obstacles she encountered and how she builds trust with reluctant or recalcitrant subjects. An annotation of the first of the four stories in the series follows our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Talk to me about how this caretaking investigation came about.
Initially, I started to think about how our aging population was experiencing unprecedented growth. Because I cover labor, I started thinking about the people who were caring for these seniors, especially in assisted facilities, which aren’t well-regulated. I began learning that rules and regulations had been relaxed, allowing them to take on more serious patients. As I looked into the demographics of these caregivers, it turned out that the majority of them were women. I was shocked to find that they were paid, in so many cases, just $2 an hour to look after seniors around the clock, for years on end. Some of them could not leave, and they were not allowed to take holidays — or if they did, they had to find a replacement.

I just knew this was a story we had to do. It was a problem that was so obvious and hiding in plain sight.

Given that there is so much abuse and inequity out there to cover, what’s your process to parse out whether and when an ambitious project is worth pursuing?
There are a few criteria.

  • The first is originality. It has to be a story that’s revelatory, and that nobody has covered in a comprehensive and substantive way.
  • It has to have the potential for impact: reform, new laws, new congressional hearings or something of that sort to potentially correct the problem or abuse.
  • I look for stories that are quantifiable, where there’s a data component — either you can create an original dataset yourself by piecing together disparate pieces of information or by cross-referencing two different sets of data to reveal trends.
  • And then compelling narratives. I look for individuals, whose stories — if we take the time to listen — are emblematic of broader national themes that should be addressed.

At what point in your research did you know you had enough to tell a story rather than just present a topic?
I knew it was a story when I kept hearing the same stories over and over again, happening in many different states. It was an industry practice to underpay workers and violate federal minimum wage laws on such a systemic level. One person I talked to would refer me to five others. Regulators had known this was a problem for a long time and had tried to curb the abuse, but it hadn’t worked. There were many court filings, many personal stories, and many individuals and workers who were telling me that these abuses were a matter of a routine practice.

Which  narratives did you find that didn’t make into the piece?
A major part of the reporting was establishing systemic trends in the industry: the entrenched practice of underpaying workers, the widespread threats and intimidation, and harassment. There were many, many workers I spoke with who could not go on the record because it would have jeopardized their jobs or immigration status. But the reporting that we developed with those workers was essential to the structure of the story.

How did you build trust with sources who had so much at stake?
That was definitely one of the challenges. It was a matter of meeting with them many times in person. Many times, the conversations began off the record. We developed a closer relationship, and some of them came to trust me because they knew that I was doing a long-term project. The aim was to expose a whole industry and widespread industry abuses. And I think they decided, in some cases, to go on the record because they wanted to see those abuses thwarted.

It also required making all kinds of arrangements depending on the platform. Some workers agreed  to talk, but only would do it in shadow for television. Some workers agreed to talk, but only for the text piece and not using their name. I had to be flexible, understand people’s needs and ask them very clearly, ‘What can I do for you, where we can both be comfortable talking about the terrible abuse that you suffered and have endured?’ It involved figuring out ways to empower people whose power had been all but taken away, and asking them whether they’d be more comfortable with their lawyers present, talking in their homes or coming into the office. Meeting them where they are.

This story clearly required a sensitive, empathetic approach in order to happen. How do you think about the power dynamic between journalists and sources as it pertains to going on the record ?
I’ve experienced different stories where people agree to go on the record and then change their mind. These are regular people with jobs that are much more important than any story. Their livelihoods are at stake. The last thing we want to do is re-victimize somebody who’s been through that.

What was the timeline from start to finish?
Sifting through the data and documents, developing sources and really understanding the main findings took a couple of months. It took about eight months to report and write the first two installments in the series, and with the help of colleagues, report and produce the Reveal radio hour and the PBS NewsHour piece.

Three to four months in, I knew what my main findings would be. Some of them were still being refined, but I had my characters who were going to drive our narrative and I was taking it to each platform to pitch at CIR — to radio, to digital and to the film unit. Back then, I shopped it to each platform, but our pitch process is different now.

In the beginning it was a two-part series, but it ended up being a four-part series. The third installment was published a few months later in the fall, followed by a fourth story two months after that. From reporting to publication of the last piece, it took about a year.

I actually wrote the draft of the first installment in three days because I was under a deadline. My editor who had greenlit the project initially, Ziva Branstetter, was going to The Washington Post and I wanted her to see it before she left.

How much pre-reporting do you typically do for your projects?
I do a lot of pre-reporting, especially around originality, so I understand what else has been written on the topic and how our project will be differentiated from past coverage — or how we can use it as a springboard. If it’s an issue that hasn’t been covered before, I want to understand what else is out there that’s even remotely close. I like to have a good sense of the topic, potential findings, any tools we can use to collect data and other possible stories we can tell before I pitch.

For a hard-hitting piece like this, how did you think about how much space you wanted to give to narrative versus data?
I like to weave the data into the narrative so it doesn’t feel unpleasant for the reader and supports a narrative point. There is a nutgraf where we cite the summary findings, but then we quickly get back into the storytelling. We pulled out data into a map, and had some other facts and figures in a graphic, which allowed us to lighten that burden on the reader as far as going through all of our findings in the text. It was a really useful way to keep the momentum flowing.

Annotation: Storyboard’s questions and comments are in red; Gollan’s responses are in blue. To read the story without the annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which can be found below the contributors’ list on the right-hand side of the web page, or at the top of your mobile screen.

Caregivers and takers

An investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting uncovers widespread exploitation of workers who tend to the elderly.

By Jennifer Gollan

Originally published May 19, 2019.

She alights from a black Ferrari convertible, her Christian Louboutin stilettos in the sunlight. The lid of her black lacquer grand piano is propped open in the living room of her plush Beverly Hills home on the aptly named Clear View Drive. I love this vivid description. Did you visit her home in person, or did you recreate these details? I went to her house in Beverly Hills and rang her doorbell. Rachel De Leon, the producer I worked with on the PBS NewsHour piece, was with me. I’d hoped she’d answer some questions about how she’d shifted her assets to other family members and filed for bankruptcy after state regulators caught up with her for underpaying her workers. But as you can see from the PBS NewsHour piece, she answered, but told us we had the wrong house. ((Skip to 4:16 in this piece.))

“I own a chain of elderly care facilities,” she says into the camera on Bravo’s reality television show “The Millionaire Matchmaker.”

“My net worth is $3 to $4 million, probably.”

Stephanie Costa was 30 and rich by most standards yet believed it was time to fetch a man of means.  This is a great line! It has a nice punch to it.

“You don’t want to date down,” the show’s host says to her. “You want to date 200 grand and above who treats you like a princess.”

Costa nods. “Before I know it, I’m alone in the nursing home … in my own nursing home.” What drove your decision to open with this character, rather than a caregiver? Stephanie Costa epitomized how care home owners in the industry enriched themselves while underpaying their workers, and how profiteers often shielded their assets to dodge accountability.

Costa’s lifestyle was supported in part by six board-and-care homes she owned in California’s Central Valley that now operate under the names Clear View Retirement Group and Copper River Retirement Group.

About half of Costa’s net worth was threatened when she and her company initially were cited for about $1.6 million for labor violations, including wage theft – not paying 11 employees for working much of 24 hours a day, six days a week. They later would settle for pennies on the dollar.

Costa, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is a rare public face of a burgeoning multibillion-dollar elder care industry that is enabling operators to become wealthy by treating workers as indentured servants.   What were some of the considerations that went into your decision to prominently feature Costa, a character whom you didn’t interview? And why was she the perfect character for this role? See my comment above. Additionally, Stephanie had flaunted her wealth on a reality television show, which presented an shocking paradox given that some of her workers were not earning minimum wage. We went to great lengths to interview her over several months. Along with calling her several times, I flew to LA to see if we could speak with her in person. Across the country, legions of these caregivers earn a pittance to tend to the elderly in residential houses refurbished as care facilities, according to an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

The profit margins can be huge and, for violators of labor laws, hinge on the widespread exploitation of thousands of caretakers, many of them poor immigrants effectively earning $2 to $3.50 an hour to work around the clock. The federal hourly minimum wage is $7.25.

Reveal interviewed more than 80 workers, care-home operators and government regulators and reviewed hundreds of wage theft cases handled by California and federal labor regulators, workers and local district attorneys. This nutgraf comes fairly quickly in the piece (and goodness, more than 80 is a ton of sources!). Why did you want to establish the depth of your reporting this high up in the story? It was important to show that our findings revealed systemic exploitation. I had to overcome a series of challenges to report this series over the course of a year, including filing — and negotiating — more than 50 FOIA requests, interviewing very reluctant care workers who believed their jobs and safety were threatened by speaking with me, and digging through stacks of bankruptcy records, wage theft claims and real estate documents. The investigation found rampant wage theft has pushed a vast majority of these caregivers into poverty.

Workers are left feeling desperate and trapped. Many caregivers say they rise before daybreak to cook meals, shower residents and scrub toilets. At night, they are deprived of sufficient sleep because they have to wake to change adult diapers, dispense painkillers, return wandering dementia residents to their beds and shift the bedridden every two hours to thwart bedsores. This detail is really evocative.

Workers describe sleeping in hallways and garages, on couches and the floor. Some care homes deduct $25 a day from caregivers’ paychecks for “lodging.” I like the way that you contrast a short, punchy sentence about the reality that caregivers experience with a sentence about how that experience is presented on paper. Was that structure intentional? Yes, I enjoy reading material that involves a varied tempo.

Exploited caregivers rarely are allowed a day off; even then, they often must pay their substitutes. Two caregivers recounted having miscarriages after their bosses refused to allow them time off or to stop lifting heavy residents.

Because these workers often live where they work, they are under the watchful eye of their bosses.  Throughout this opening section, you make broad statements about caregivers but don’t specifically name any people yet. Why? These are the main findings, based on the 80 interviews and documents cited above, so the idea is to keep things general through this section to lay out the contours of the investigation. Then let specific characters take us through much of the rest of the piece. They are bullied into not cooperating with investigators. In some cases, care-home operators have threatened to report undocumented workers to authorities.

Human trafficking – in which workers, particularly Filipinos, are coerced, manipulated and exploited – also is not uncommon, according to prosecutors and attorneys. For example, several family members were charged last year with human trafficking and labor abuse in a case involving caregivers in San Mateo County, California, south of San Francisco.

“It’s a classic tale of human greed,” said Tia Koonse, legal and policy research manager at the UCLA Labor Center. “Their entire business model is predicated on not making payroll. It relies on people being willing to work for 24 hours a day for less than a dollar an hour. Only trafficked people will put up with that.”

 

The growth of board-and-care homes in neighborhoods across the United States is tied to medical advances, enabling aging baby boomers to live longer despite debilitating illnesses. This has resulted in an increasing number of gravely ill people or their family members seeking an alternative to costly nursing home care. There were about 29,000 residential care communities nationwide and about 300,000 full-time caregivers in 2016, according to the most recent federal figures available. About two-thirds are smaller facilities with four to 25 residents, many with dementia. California leads the nation with more than 7,300 residential care facilities licensed by the state. I like how you chose to open this section by zooming out and providing readers with macro context, to give us a view from the mountaintop. The idea is to give readers a broad overview of what this industry is about and quickly touch who lives in these facilities.

Stephanie Costa provides a case study in exploiting workers, getting caught breaking labor laws and circumventing full punishment.

In 2013, 11 workers brought wage theft claims after providing around-the-clock care in the care homes Costa owned. Descriptions like these really build a sense of empathy for these workers – they are literally tending to the old, sick and dying. What was your intent in including these details? These are some of the toughest jobs, both physically and mentally. I was moved by the empathy and compassion these workers have for the residents they care for — even when those caregivers were being exploited. I was also struck by caregivers’ courage to speak out and hold their employers to account. They changed adults’ diapers, comforted the dying and hoisted infirm residents into bed. They worked six days a week and subsisted on meager wages, according to interviews and court documents.

The workers said they risked being fired if they left the facilities and had no off-duty rest breaks during the day. Costa’s care homes promoted 24/7 care for frail clients.

“We knew we were being underpaid,” said Juliet Delos Reyes, 60, a former caregiver employed by Costa. “But we were helpless. We didn’t know our rights. How could we leave?”

Reyes said she was not allowed to leave the home without permission when clients were present.

In many cases, workers in the industry fall into jobs that become increasingly abusive. A substantial number are working in the U.S. without authorization or applying to remain legally in the country. They are paid less than they’re promised, isolated and restricted to the facilities.

Residents in these care homes typically are more than 60 years old. The annual national median cost for each resident is about $48,000. Why was it useful to include this reference point? The idea is to give readers a sense of how much revenue some of these care homes generate even as they underpay workers. Dementia residents often pay more. Some owners tack on extra charges for those who are incontinent or desire more than two showers a week. This is such an effective detail. My blood was boiling by the time I read this.

Over the last decade, care-home operators across the nation broke minimum wage, overtime or record-keeping laws in at least 1,400 cases, federal data shows. How long did it take you to sift through all that data? Several months. Melissa Lewis, a data reporter for Reveal, and I analyzed 10 years of data that required cross-referencing records, in many cases by hand, with corporate filings and licensing documents. Melissa then built a searchable public database of care homes cited for labor abuses around the country, which we posted on Reveal’s site. About 35 percent of them were in California. Data obtained by Reveal through a California Public Records Act request shows senior care facilities in the state have pending wage theft claims against them or have been ordered to pay back wages and penalties in more than 110 additional cases. This paragraph feels like an important one. It also feels thematically important to pretty much all sections of the piece. Why did you place it here? This paragraph is a central point in the story. I put it in this section about the industry and how Stephanie Costa dodged accountability because it shows that Costa is just one person in a sea of wage theft and exploitation. It’s widespread. I also wanted to show how the workers’ paltry wages stand in stark contrast to the large sums residents must pay to live in these care homes.

Three months after Costa’s star turn on Bravo in 2013, the state labor commissioner’s office ordered Costa and her company, Bedford Care Group, to pay about $1.6 million for unpaid wages and penalties. That’s when she changed tactics.

Papers were then filed with the state to create two new residential care-home companies called Clear View Retirement Group LLC and Copper River Retirement Group LLC. Costa’s mother, Alice Hayes, is secretary, one of two officers, of these companies, according to licensing records. Hayes declined to comment. Did you face pushback from those who declined to comment? I went to great lengths to make them aware of what I was working on and our findings. Would you mind expanding on this a bit? In each case, I contacted folks by phone and if they didn’t respond, I followed up with an email and, in some cases, a few emails. In Stephanie Costa’s case, I left her a voicemail. When I didn’t hear back, I called her mother and spoke with her briefly. I told her what I was working on and the things I was hoping to learn about her business dealings. Then I flew to L.A. and knocked on her door to no avail.

These new companies then received licenses from the state to run the six former Bedford care homes. But the structure and administrative staff in the care homes? Hayes assured residents that they would remain the same. In December 2014, following an appeal, the amount owed for the labor violations was reduced to $665,000. But around the same time, Costa’s Bedford Care Group filed for bankruptcy, a legal maneuver that allowed her to effectively slash the amount she owed workers by settling the case for about $200,000, which she paid.

Three weeks after Costa’s care-home business filed for bankruptcy, her father registered a new company with the state called Property Investment Housing LLC. The company then took over as the new owner of Costa’s six care homes. Her father did not return a call seeking comment. Stephanie Costa is the company’s chief executive, records show.

 

Stephanie Costa represents a rare case in which an operator paid up, if only a partial amount of the original fine. Residential care facilities for the elderly receive among the largest wage theft judgments of any industry. This is a striking statement. How verify this across industries? This information came from good sources who worked for regulators. Yet Reveal found that some facility owners caught cheating their workers are able to evade fines and judgments.

Many companies play shell games by not keeping money or real estate holdings in the name of the company against which judgments or fines are entered. They simply abandon their company names – and the judgments against those named entities – rendering the penalties and wage theft judgments meaningless.

Across the country, states are charged with regulating board-and-care facilities. In California, the state labor commissioner’s office and U.S. Department of Labor, in addition to some local governments, are charged with investigating wage theft. State and federal regulators say privately that they need many more investigators and lawyers to chase down scofflaws and force them to pay. What was your intent with the phrasing, “say privately?” And what was the purpose of this line? These sources were frustrated about the rampant exploitation we’d uncovered but could not speak publicly about it because they feared for their jobs.

The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division declined to make top officials available for an interview. But in a written statement, a Labor Department spokesman said: “Last year the division recovered a record-setting $304 million in back wages for workers and conducted a record-setting 3,600 outreach events to provide information to employers, employees, and other stakeholders about the requirements of the law.”

The agency noted that in California, it has conducted investigations and “extensive outreach” to care-home operators “ensuring that they pay their workers the wages they have legally earned.”

At least 20 companies providing care for the elderly, disabled and mentally ill in California continue to operate illegally – many of them under their original names – after ignoring judgments for back wages and penalties totaling more than $1.4 million, Reveal found. A 2016 law barred companies with outstanding wage theft judgments from conducting business in the state. But the state Department of Social Services’ Community Care Licensing Division, which is in charge of licensing facilities for the elderly and disabled, has not followed through.

“Elderly people aren’t able to pay what they’d need to pay for these homes to be compliant.”
— Ronald Simpson, a founding director of 6Beds Inc.

Pat Leary, acting director of the Department of Social Services, declined through spokesman Michael Weston to be interviewed. Why was it essential for you to show your homework, even though these sources wouldn’t participate? It was important to note that the public official in charge of addressing  the problem we’d uncovered — care home owners continuing to operate despite outstanding wage theft judgments — had declined to discuss our findings. But in an email, Weston wrote that while the law allows his agency to deny a new license or not renew an existing one, the agency can take these steps only if it finds residents’ health and safety have been threatened.

For her part, Costa’s former employee Juliet Delos Reyes desperately needed the total back pay she was owed before the bankruptcy of Costa’s company. She now cares for her husband, who is on dialysis. His medical bills are crushing.

“We didn’t save anything. It affected us badly,” Reyes said through tears. “I just hope that someday the government will look at how caregivers are treated.”

In mid-2016, the California Social Services Department banned Costa from the assisted living business for life after finding multiple health and safety violations. Among the violations: caregivers working without required criminal background checks; caregivers lacking the proper skills to test the glucose of a diabetic resident whose hands had been amputated; taking in hospice patients without the state’s permission; and arguing with the friend of a resident who was sent to the hospital, prompting staff there to ask her to leave.

Costa ignored the ban and continued to hire and fire workers at the care homes. So state licensing officials in April 2017 had Costa’s mother sign a declaration promising Costa would not be involved in “any capacity” with the companies – Copper River Retirement Group and Clear View Retirement Group – that operate the care homes she once ran. This struck me as funny — simply asking someone to sign a document saying they won’t do something bad. What was your reaction when you learned this, and why did you think it was a nugget worth including? When Costa listed herself on corporate filings for Clear View Retirement Group, she was again flouting the state’s ban on her involvement in the industry. So this was a way to set up that juxtaposition.

But even after that meeting, records show, Costa listed herself as a managing member of Clear View Retirement Group. Costa’s name has since been removed from the most recent business filings received by the state. Did the issue of amended filings come up a lot during your reporting process? Yes, I pulled all of the corporate filings filed each year by the companies in the story to sort out exactly who was in charge and when. I also cross referenced these records with bankruptcy filings, real estate records, court records, state licensing records and other material.

A representative for the care-home industry readily acknowledged wrongdoing but blamed thin profit margins for necessitating the practice of underpaying workers.

“Are there problems? There are lots of problems,” said Ronald Simpson, a founding director of 6Beds Inc., a lobbying and advocacy organization that represents more than 1,000 operators of small residential care facilities for seniors in California. “Elderly people aren’t able to pay what they’d need to pay for these homes to be compliant.”

Still, for workers earning anemic pay, “it’s possible they’re happy, too,” he added. “Anemic pay” is fantastic word choice. There were only so many ways to describe how poorly these workers were paid.

Simpson then lashed out at Reveal for investigating wage theft in the industry. I am so curious about what went down during this conversation. Can you share more about what made you decide to include this line? I wanted readers to understand that his answer was multi-faceted. He first asserted that the profit margins were too low for care homes to pay their workers minimum wage. Then he said workers were happy earning meager wages. Then he  bristled at my questions and said our investigation would harm the industry.

“What you’re doing is not a service to the industry,” he said. “It makes the whole industry look like they’re getting rich and ripping people off.”

As he spoke, Simpson was busy organizing one of the group’s all-day workshops for care-home operators on labor laws, which the 6Beds website promised would give them a key bit of advice: how to “minimize labor costs.”

 

For four years, Sonia Deza rose every morning at 5 a.m. to cook, clean, and wash and medicate her charges at Scienn Hail Home Care IV in Antioch, California, a city of about 100,000 people in the San Francisco Bay Area. She could not sit down again to rest until 10 p.m., after she tucked residents into bed and organized their prescriptions for the next day.

A long night still lay ahead; some wandering dementia residents needed help back to bed, and others had to be shifted every two hours. Deza rarely took a day off, as she would need to pay her substitute. She earned about $2 an hour. She worried she would be fired if she complained.

Then in 2013, federal regulators ordered Deza’s bosses, Glenda and Rommel Publico, to pay Deza and 21 other workers more than $133,000 in back wages for violating federal minimum wage and overtime laws.

The Publicos wrote Deza two checks totaling more than $17,700 in back wages. But instead of letting her deposit the checks, Rommel Publico demanded the money back, claiming it was his, Deza said in an interview. She said she was frightened he would fire her if she refused. So she served her residents lunch and then took a rare break on two afternoons in July 2013. Did details like this come from Deza’s account, or did you reconstruct it from documents? I gleaned some details from the documents and then learned the rest from Sonia Deza. Rommel Publico picked her up from work and drove her to two different banks.

“I took the checks into the banks, then returned to the car and gave him the cash,” said Deza, 66. “Oh my goodness, that’s my money. I worked so hard for it. I really needed that money. It’s big money for me.”

Publico let her keep $1,000. He called it a bonus, she said.

Three of Deza’s co-workers said in interviews that they also were forced to return the back wages. Why did you choose not to name her co-workers? It was important to keep the momentum in this section rather than bog it down with more names. According to federal Labor Department records, the Publicos submitted false documents to labor investigators purporting to show they’d paid the back wages. Still other workers never received a check in the first place. They still are waiting.

Prosecutors from the Contra Costa County district attorney’s office have charged the Publicos with multiple felonies, including grand theft and tax fraud. The case is pending.

In a phone interview, Rommel Publico defended the treatment of his caregivers and said the charges against him “hurt my feelings.”

“When we ran the business, we were like a family,” Publico said through tears. “My caregivers, I treat them like my mom. I’ve never been like, ‘I’m the boss.’ On a human level, how did you respond when this person cried during the interview? I felt sorry for Rommel Publico in a way. But I got the sense that he regretted his legal and financial plight rather than the financial strain his former employees were under because he’d underpaid them. I listened carefully as he described his despair and concern for his family. I’m always interested in understanding people’s motivations.

“Every time I turn around, I have problems,” he said of the pending case against him. “It breaks my heart. I cry.” This whole section is great. What were you trying to do here by using his own words? It was important to show how Rommel Publico viewed his own role in underpaying his workers and how he regretted the ensuing legal case against him. But he did not express regret for shorting his workers.

 

Another Publico employee who was not paid back wages is Normita Lim. She worked around the clock as a caregiver in one of their care homes for nearly a decade, earning about $2 an hour. Rarely allowed a day off, she kept working, afraid she would be fired if she complained. On Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays, her three children visited her in the cramped room she lived in down the hall from the residents.

“I’m still struggling,” said Lim, 75. Wow! It strikes me that Lim is easily old enough to be in one of these homes herself. Did you consciously try to highlight the irony that many of these caretakers were also older adults who could be on the other side of this? Normita is a young 75. She is a very warm person who loves to joke around. Some of the people she was caring for were in their 90s, so everything is relative I guess. “I needed that money for my medications and food, but he got away with murder by not having to pay. I’m angry, but what can we do?”

In late 2017, the Publicos sold the care home where Lim worked. She said she stayed on as a caregiver for just a month under the new owner. She earned about $600 that month to work around the clock, seven days a week, for less than a dollar an hour. A man at the care home said the facility is now called Elizabeth Care Homes 2. But the property still is licensed to Glenda Publico, records show.

“I thought, ‘This is worse,’ so I quit,” Lim said.

 

Workers often fear reporting their mistreatment to authorities. They routinely are harassed and fired if they report abysmal pay or overtime violations, according to interviews and court documents. Reveal found 90 caregivers in California who said their bosses intimidated them, threatened to report them to immigration authorities or blacklist them in the industry. Why did you quantify your sourcing? There was no central database for this anywhere. The only way to establish the pervasive nature of this intimidation and harassment was through sources. When workers recounted their experiences, many echoed each other.

In 2014, federal investigators caught Lake Alhambra Center in Antioch cheating its workers – for a second time. When an investigator visited, an employee put him on the phone with Mehrangiz Sarkeshik, who owned the home with her husband.

She excoriated the investigator for the intrusion: “You didn’t tell me you were coming. Leave right now!” How did you reconstruct this dialogue? This scene was detailed in records I received from the U.S. Department of Labor under the Freedom of Information Act.

Then the investigator overheard Sarkeshik shout at the worker over the phone: “You need to get him out of there or you will be fired!” She called the police and upon arriving at the home, she again threatened to fire any workers who cooperated with the investigator, according to a court document. When the investigator tried to follow up, workers told him that they were too scared to talk. Soon afterward, the facility changed hands and now operates under a different name. No wage theft fines have been issued to this operator to date.

Precilla San Miguel, an owner of San Miguel Homes for the Elderly, which operates three facilities in Union City, near Silicon Valley, kept timesheets that showed caregivers worked eight hours a day, even though their employment manual required them to be available 24 hours per day, seven days a week to seniors.

She went as far as fabricating evidence to cover up her wage theft, court documents show. Workers said she offered them bribes to falsify timesheets and required them to sign agreements not to sue her. She also installed surveillance cameras in her care homes to monitor caregivers, workers said. The court ordered the defendants to pay $425,000 in back wages and damages.

Last year, members of a family were charged with various felonies, including human trafficking and labor abuse, in San Mateo County, south of San Francisco. State prosecutors say Gamos family members preyed on Filipino immigrants and “enslaved” some in their Rainbow Bright facilities. Family members forced some to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and some caregivers had their passports withheld, prosecutors say.

In court filings, prosecutors allege that some workers slept on mattresses on the floor and in garages and were prohibited from leaving the facilities, where they cared for children, the disabled and some seniors. Some workers who were injured on the job were told to lie to emergency room doctors about how they were maimed. They also were forced to pay their medical bills, according to the court documents. In general, how much narrative do you generally create from documents versus interviews? I use both. It’s important to marry the two to create textured writing that’s deeply reported.

Even as his family cheated workers out of more than $9 million in wages from 2009 through 2018, Joshua Gamos, one of the facilities’ owners, collected a fleet of cars, including a Lamborghini and a Ferrari, prosecutors allege in court documents. Gamos also is charged with raping a caregiver. She was 21 when she began working for the facilities shortly after arriving from the Philippines. Joshua, Noel and Carlina Gamos are in jail awaiting trial. A fourth defendant, Gerlen Gamos, pleaded guilty to two felony charges, including wage theft, and is awaiting sentencing. Her attorney declined to comment.

Attorneys for Joshua and Carlina Gamos said no workers were forced to work at the facilities. An attorney for Noel Gamos did not return calls seeking comment.

“Those allegations are false,” said David Cohen, an attorney for Joshua Gamos. “People wanted to work because they wanted the money. It is true that these charges have been brought, but when you actually look at the evidence and the statements that were made, it’s a completely different story.”

Meanwhile, Reveal learned of cases in which workers suffered abuse with devastating consequences. Two caregivers reported having miscarriages after lifting heavy residents and being denied time off.

One of them was Julie Riduta, 45, of Concord. More than a decade ago, she arrived from the Philippines to work as a caregiver in a care home in Contra Costa County. She earned $2 an hour to work 24 hours a day. You spend the piece introducing a large cast of characters, rather than dedicating prime real estate to a main character. Why? Each character demonstrates a different theme that is tied to one or more of our findings. It also helped to get to know a few different characters because they were at different stages of holding their employers (and former employers) accountable. Some spoke out in our story for the first time. Others were in the process of taking on their former employers in court over wage theft.

The work was grueling, but she needed the pay to educate her daughter, left behind in the Philippines, from the age of 8. For the first three years, Riduta slept on a thin piece of foam on the floor next to the residents. When they needed help, she said they kicked her awake. These details are so powerful, and so painful.

“I told my daughter I struggled so much,” Riduta recalled. “I feel abused.”

Then one day in the summer of 2014, she found out she was pregnant. Overjoyed, she and the baby’s father, a co-worker with whom she is in a relationship, posted the news on Facebook.

She also was overcome with morning sickness and was concerned about having to lift heavy residents. But when she begged her boss for two days off, Riduta said she refused.

“Go to the mirror and look at yourself,” Riduta recalled her boss saying. “Ask if you’re allowed to complain.” The scenes in this piece are compelling in part because of their dialogue. How do you weigh when it’s most effective to use dialogue? I like to use dialogue for moments of tension, to create suspense and to move the reader through a scene. It also helps readers get to know — and feel closer to — the characters in the story.

Riduta had a miscarriage two weeks later. The cause was unknown. The fetus was nine weeks old.

“I was crying all night,” Riduta said. “I still have this dream that there’s a baby crying all the time. They treated us like animals.”

 

While some are unsure how to pay their workers properly, care-home owners are certain about one thing: There is money to be made. Can you tell me about what you wanted to achieve with this segue? The idea here was to shift the focus back to care home owners and the financial back-end of the business.

Entrepreneurs on YouTube urge people to jump into the real estate end of the business by buying single-family homes and converting them into care facilities. One man explains how “to turn a single-family home into a cash flow machine.” Another calls care homes “America’s untapped business opportunity. … This business is very profitable.”

Jesse Quezada used to flip houses with his wife. When the market cooled, he said, they looked into opening a care home after a friend told them they could make thousands a month.

“Coming from our background, we thought, ‘$3,500 a month? Wow. Would people actually pay that?’ But the demand is there. People are living longer and they’re sicker.”

Quezada and his wife enrolled in a course required by California to run a home. In just two long weekends, they were qualified. They now operate several care homes.

“When you have multiple homes, you can literally make $20,000 profit a month,” he said. Was Quezada skeptical to speak with you, and was he aware of the angle of your investigation? I’m clear with everyone I talk with about our investigations and what we’re looking at. He was quite open to talking, which surprised me.

Training requirements for care-home administrators and staff in California are feeble. Administrators must undergo an initial 80-hour program and pass an open-book exam comprising 100 questions. Those overseeing small facilities with 15 or fewer residents must be 21 and have a high school diploma or the equivalent. Staff in assisted living facilities need not be nurses or have any medical expertise. In fact, manicurists in California require more training. I absolutely love this contrast — it hammers your point home. What prompted you to think of this? I think I researched a few professions, such as dog groomers, etc. Then I happened to be talking with a source at an elder advocacy organization who mentioned this in passing and it stopped me cold.

Quezada was among more than 200 care-home owners, many of whom arrived in BMWs and Teslas, for a daylong seminar at a Southern California community hall last October. Among the presenters were labor regulators and attorneys who took questions from the crowd.

Attendees sought advice on proper pay practices and other labor issues and were advised by the presenters to follow the law.

Then George Kutnerian, senior vice president of public policy and legislation for the 6Beds group, took the stage as one of the last speakers. Operators should slash costs by leveraging labor laws to their advantage, Kutnerian urged them. Was it difficult to convince the people running the seminar to let you join? I ended up attending two seminars. They were pretty reasonable about having me there. I gathered the material I needed for the digital piece at the first seminar. But by the time we went back the second time, this time with the hope of shooting video for the PBS NewsHour piece and gathering audio for the Reveal radio show, they wouldn’t allow it. But then we convinced them to allow us to simply shoot their opening speeches about labor laws, etc. which they toned down from the first seminar I attended.

For example, owners do not need to hire two caregivers when they could get away with one, Kutnerian said.

“There is no staffing ratio. A lot of people think, ‘I can’t have one caregiver alone.’ That’s not true,” he advised.

“You gotta learn how to use one caregiver,” he said. Plus, there’s a “nice exception” in state law, Kutnerian continued. Care homes with just one caregiver on duty can require that worker to stay for rest and meal breaks, he noted, adding: “If you have two caregivers there, they have to be able to leave. It’s more efficient, OK?

“What this is getting you out of is the penalty,” Kutnerian boomed over the microphone. “That’s the trick. How do you keep them on the premises for rest and meal breaks?” This comment is cringe-worthy.

For owners who treat their workers properly, the market pressure is intense. While there are operators who comply with the law and turn a profit, some care homes charge less to attract residents searching for affordable care. What was your intent with this paragraph? The idea was to note that not all care homes exploit workers.

“It’s frustrating to be undercut,” said Jose Umana, who runs Premiere Cottages, which operates several care homes in Long Beach and Huntington Beach. “It’s hard to stay in the market when you’re competing with other homes that have lower rates. The caregivers are bearing the brunt.”

William Murphy, a prosecutor with the Alameda County district attorney’s office in the San Francisco Bay Area who has handled a dozen wage theft cases involving care homes in the last five years, says the business model depends on squeezing workers. He summed it up in two brief sentences:

“It’s extreme greed by the owners. The workers are treated horribly.” Why did you choose to end on this quote, and what were you hoping to leave readers with? I liked how Murphy crisply captured themes that run through the piece that are driven by greed.

Data reporter Melissa Lewis contributed to this story. It was edited by Narda Zacchino, Matt Thompson, Ziva Branstetter and Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick. Layout design by Michael Grant.

Jennifer Gollan can be reached at jgollan@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @jennifergollan.

 

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