Dental Assistant Denied Breaks Led to Downward Spiral - Now Filing California Labor Lawsuit

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Santa Rosa, CA Gina, a registered dental assistant, was happy with her job at the Small Care Dental Clinic. She had lots of help and always took two breaks and lunch, as mandated by the California labor code. But a corporation bought the company and - not surprisingly - put profits over people. There was no time for breaks. Gina eventually filed a California labor law complaint.

Gina says that the day after Coast Dental bought out Small Care the registered dental assistants were trained on their new computer system. The following day, all six of the non-registered dental assistants (who helped Gina and her colleagues) were fired. “Three of us were left holding the bag because the workload didn’t change.”

One way to compensate for less staff was deny those workers “dangling the workload” their mandatory 10-minute breaks - one in the morning and one in the afternoon. “Nobody was happy with this situation, even the dentists were devastated,” says Gina. “We were all complaining and we were all working overtime because we were constantly slammed.

“It gets worse. There are ten operatory rooms. It’s a big clinic, so a cleaning service came in at night, along with the break room and the waiting room, but that was prior to the changeover. This new company delivered us cleaning equipment! We worked our buts off all day and then had to clean the entire clinic. We had to mop floors and do all the sterilization. We never signed up for this work but our office manager told us that if we wanted to work there we had no choice.

“At the point we didn’t want to work overtime (which we got paid for) but we had to look after our patients. They forced this whole production issue on us; it was all about making more money. They didn’t want us to work overtime but we had no choice. We constantly complained about not getting breaks. ‘Well take a break,’ they said. How could we take a break when no one could relieve us? We couldn’t leave the dentist and his patient.”

The dental assistants weren’t able to add their breaks to their time sheets as overtime because they clocked in and clocked out at lunchtime, and then clocked back in and out at the end of the day. “Sometimes we couldn’t even get to the bathroom because we were so slammed, but if we ran into the break room and grabbed something to drink, we would get into trouble,” Gina adds. “If you calculate all the days we worked without breaks, it’s a lot of money. Over a year, we probably took 5 percent of our breaks. We were all in the same boat, with the exception of the dentists.

“We complained to the dentists but they didn’t have any control over the corporation. In fact the dentists made it worse - they were running around like chickens with their heads cut off. They had to meet a certain quota and after that they could make more money so that wanted to book in additional crown preps (more money) and emergencies.

“It became very stressful and I was getting depressed. I am a single parent with two teenagers. I explained my work situation and family problems to my doctor. I saw him originally for my yearly physical (I’m almost 50) and I was prescribed Wellbutrin, an anti-depressant. At first I didn’t like the meds and stopped, but my doctor advised me to stay on them a bit longer. The stress at work got worse so I started self-medicating - I had a few drinks after work. Then I went back on Wellbutrin.

“My boss, the office manager, thought I was on drugs, but I just drink wine. Wellbutrin makes you act a bit weird. I knew I wasn’t being myself: I thought everyone was looking at me and sometimes I forgot things but I was always a hard worker and had lots of compliments. They made me take a drug test. I figured I couldn’t stay on Wellbutrin so I stopped taking it the next day. But I started drinking wine again as soon as I got off work. Anyway, I missed a day of work.

“The stress continued. I drank a bit too much one night and next morning I was still a bit drunk at work so they made me leave. I apologized profusely. To make a long story short, I went on a downward spiral and I ended up getting a DUI a few months later. I was incarcerated for 14 days for being drunk and disorderly in public and they fired me.

“But they said I quit because I didn’t show up for work. I have been denied unemployment and food stamps and cannot get any financial aid. I asked my boss for my job back but no dice so I’m looking for work but there aren’t many jobs out there right now. I am happy that I don’t have to go back there, but financially I am screwed. I had to borrow $1,000 from my dad and I’m surviving off my credit cards. My kids are OK - they get child support from their dad.

“There were a lot of stressful situations that led to this point but I have only myself to blame. I want to get reimbursed for my breaks and I want to get unemployment insurance. I put in an appeal about 10 days ago with unemployment but haven’t got a date yet for the judge to hear my case. Meanwhile, I filed a complaint with an employment attorney.

“We all knew it was against the law to deny our breaks but everyone was afraid to complain; we all talked about turning them in. I wish I had reported them to the California labor board before I got fired. And I wonder if any of this would have happened if I was able to take my breaks and not get so stressed out.”

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