Toxic Workplace Leads to Employee Suicide at LA County Department of Public Health


Back in 2022 we wrote about the terrible working conditions in the Environmental Health Division of the LA County Department of Public Health where, according to a whistleblower, Director Liza Frias runs a tyrannical and retaliatory toxic workplace. In spite of numerous actions by the employee union to address the issues, including sending cease and desist letters to Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer and a vote of no confidence, nothing has been done – and now there are deadly consequences.


EXCLUSIVE: Whistleblower Claims LA County’s Ferrer Is Using State of Emergency to Abuse and Retaliate Against Employees, Shakedown Businesses


Last Thursday, LA County Environmental Health Specialist Heather Hughes took her own life by jumping off the top of the 18-story building in which the Environmental Health Division is housed. Co-workers speaking to RedState on condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation say that Hughes had been dealing with depression for some time and that Associate Director Brenda Lopez denied Hughes’ request for a medical leave of absence despite it being recommended by Hughes’ doctor.

From a written statement a co-worker sent to RedState:

Hughes left a suicide note in her car accusing Brenda Lopez, Environmental Health assistant director, for her death. She accused Lopez, uniformly disliked by co-workers, of bullying, harassment, and not taking her needs and complaints about the division seriously.

Concerned for the welfare of others, Hughes chose to jump onto the parking structure instead of the plaza where passers-by could have been hurt. A selfless last act.

According to one account, just before her fatal plunge, a maintenance worker on the roof implored Hughes to step back from the ledge. A moment later, to his absolute horror, she jumped. Colleagues of Hughes also shockingly witnessed her fall event from their office windows.

Ironically, the health department’s Suicide Prevention Department is housed in the same building.

The co-worker also told RedState that meetings have been held between senior management and members of the Board of Supervisors to attempt to keep information about the circumstances of Heather’s death from coming out in the media. Phone calls made by RedState to the Board of Supervisors on this issue were not returned.

An anonymous employee posted a similar account to Reddit.

Other co-workers added context on Reddit backing up what the original poster said.

Frias sent a memo to staff with the subject line “Unexpected Passing of a Colleague” announcing Heather’s death. She included information about employee assistance resources available for those struggling with the news of Heather’s death – ironic, given that Heather was asking for a medical leave of absence due to depression at the time of her death.

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The next evening, after 5 PM, Ferrer acknowledged Heather’s death in an email to staff. Ferrer’s email used the exact same verbiage found in Frias’ email; she simply substituted her name for Frias’. Again, no acknowledgement of any mental health issues or offering resources for employees who are despondent over their work situation.

An inspector told RedState that department higher-ups told inspectors and supervisors on Friday that if any of them spoke to the media about this situation they would be fired.

Heather was passionate about boxing. Her gym posted this memorial on Friday, shaming her employers for bullying and harassment, and one commenter who obviously knew Heather said that her managers had “rejected her pleas for FMLA and reasonable accommodation.”

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The workplace issues were not unknown to higher-ups, including Barbara Ferrer. In August 2021 the union sent a cease and desist letter to Ferrer and other DPH top executives, insisting that they put a stop to Frias’ unreasonable and retaliatory workplace policies.

While a good deal of the policies employees complained about had to do with how the office was run during the COVID pandemic (which lasted a lot longer in CA than other areas of the country), the overall toxic environment wasn’t exclusive to COVID. A current inspector speaking to RedState anonymously said that they would never consider telling HR about any complaint because they knew they would be fired for it and there would be no recourse.

One way management made life miserable for inspectors during COVID was to focus on issuing citations for COVID order violations instead of allowing the inspectors to issue warnings or educate the business owners. Then, those inspectors were the face of the department in public and had to take the heat for issuing violations that they didn’t want to issue for the most part – these are inspectors whose job it is to make sure the public isn’t being exposed to food-borne illnesses or other such hazards; they’re not political animals. As described in my 2022 story about the department (emphasis added):

None in the lower branches want to visit, cite, and close businesses over Barbara’s mandates. This is not the duties that they signed up for and the majority thinks that this is a money making scheme to get money from the COVID Emergency Fund. As long as mandates are existing or keeps returning, the upper management will have local offices and inspectors visit businesses for compliance. Each visit inspectors make gets billed to the COVID Emergency Fund and the issuance of citation is another revenue.

And on top of all of that, they were working mandatory OT and expected to conduct more inspections than logistically possible during their shifts. From the 2021 cease and desist letter:

EH Management requires that all employees take their 30-minute COVID Wellness Break in the office prior to leaving for the field. EHSs do not need a mental health break in the office. They need a break when they are in the field dealing with hostile operators who resent the heavy-handed enforcement policies of this department, policies which focus on punishing rather than educating business owners who are already suffering economically. EHSs are currently tasked with more office work than before the pandemic, while at the same time EH Management is permitting less office time than was the standard prior to the pandemic. EHS’s who don’t leave for the field in the allotted time frame are subject to harassment, bullying, and discipline from their supervisors.

That same month the union held a Vote of No Confidence in Frias, Lopez, and Abbott that was signed by over 160 members.

Then in January 2023 there was a staff call in which Frias denied any morale problem, despite the division operating at a 50 percent (yes, you read that correctly) vacancy rate. The union then conducted an employee survey and presented the results (which were overwhelmingly negative) to management. A few of the comments:

  • “My life and the life of my chief is made absolutely miserable by idiots, morons, buffoons, and sadistic dictators in management. I hate management with all my heart and soul.”
  • “I learned the hard way to avoid communication. In the past, bringing up issues has led to a ‘deal with it or stop working here’ situation OR has placed me in an even worse situation. Calling attention to a problem only leads to management protecting themselves and has never lead to a ‘win-win’ situation.”
  • “We are severely understaffed and expected to complete the work of 3 inspectors in my program

    alone.”

There’s also a huge issue with Frias’ administration expecting all EHS’s to report to their centralized offices before heading out into the field to do inspections. For instance, four divisions operate out of that Koreatown office: Hollywood, DTLA, mid-City, and mid-Wilshire. So regardless of where the inspectors live they have to drive to that office and then go out to do inspections, when it would make more sense given Los Angeles’ notorious traffic for the inspectors to start their fieldwork in a strategic fashion to maximize productivity. But then the inspectors are hammered for not being as productive as management wants them to be. If Frias were to allow inspectors to choose that more logical way of structuring a day, she’d be losing control. And if districts – which all have their own chiefs – had offices physically located in the district they cover, Frias, Lopez, and Abbott would have less power since they wouldn’t be physically in the same office to “oversee” what was happening, i.e., micromanage.

It should also be noted that Environmental Health is where convicted felon Carl Kemp landed after getting out of prison, as Frias’ Chief Communications Officer. RedState exclusively reported about this patronage job in 2022:

[O]ne of the first measures Barbara Ferrer took was to install allies in key positions to warn against potential mutinies, and leverage the considerable powers of appointment she had to do favors for people whose support she would need… namely, her bosses, members of the Board of Supervisors.

This is how a politically-connected, recently-released felon who was convicted of filing a fraudulent tax return (for failing to report $750,000 in “lobbying” income, including nearly $220,000 from a drug trafficking kingpin), Carl Kemp, came to work as Chief Communications Officer in the Environmental Health Division of the LA County Department of Public Health.

So, Ferrer obviously has a lot of confidence in Frias’ abilities.

A separate whistleblower sent this statement to the LA County Board of Supervisors, along with the survey, hoping for a change:

For the past 5 years, management has turned the best job in LA county into the worst. Our workplace has become the most toxic cesspool of micromanagement, bullying, and retaliation.. This has triggered a mass exodus from EH. We are overworked, underpaid, and constantly abused and mistreated by management. When we attempt to relay our concerns we are met with hostility by both EH management and DPH HR. They bully and intimidate us when we try to make our workplace better. We are constantly and unnecessarily put in dangerous situations in our field work. Our staff members are have been verbally threatened and physically assaulted during our inspections. There is zero morale amongst myself and my colleagues which is negatively affecting our work. 

And it’s not just employee health that’s suffering – the public is at risk. From the written statement sent to RedState by one of Heather’s co-workers:

Low morale, pettiness, retaliation, divisiveness and discontent has plagued the Environmental Health Department for many years. The department employs several hundred restaurant inspectors. By all accounts, conditions are only getting worse.

Hughes’ death is one of the strongest indicators yet of the stressful working conditions that exist in the department. This has resulted in constant turnover in staff and a vacancy rate of over 50% that has left inspectors stressed in trying to keep up with the frequency of inspection requests.

This has placed the public at great risk of food poisoning and unsanitary conditions at restaurants because inspections are only taking place once each year as opposed to the required three times for a Risk Assessment 1 restaurant, the best rating.

 A now-retired inspector who prefers to remain anonymous said:

Letter grades of ‘A’ are a snapshot in time and could be three years old, making them wholly unreliable.

People need to be held accountable for the department’s deplorable, hostile workplace conditions, which has now culminated in a suicide.

We desperately need the media’s help in investigating the department so that workers’ mental health needs are met, enough inspectors are retained and the public is protected.

The entire employee survey can be read below. 

LA County Dept of Public He… by Jennifer Van Laar



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