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The family of Francisco Javier Rendon Sr., who had worked for SunLine Transit Agency for about three decades in Palm Springs, is reportedly suing the bus company for wrongful death after he died of COVID-19. His loved ones allege Rendon contracted the virus while working at SunLine. The family’s attorney reportedly filed the complaint in Riverside County Superior Court recently after the agency previously denied the widow’s claim for damages.
Throughout the pandemic, among the variety of jobs Rendon was responsible for at SunLine included cleaning and fueling up the busses that continued to run, to changing out trash can liners in the shop. But then he fell ill. The 67-year-old died at the intensive care unit at a Rancho Mirage, CA hospital on Dec. 26 of complications related to COVID-19.
Rendon’s family, several of whom also work for the transportation provider, say SunLine failed to protect its workers from the coronavirus, particularly as the last months of 2020 proved to be among the pandemic’s deadliest. Rendon’s wife, Maria, sued the agency claiming that it did not implement basic precautions to keep workers safe, violated California workplace safety standards, and pressured infected employees to work despite showing symptoms of the virus.
Luke Brown, a spokesperson for Cal/OSHA, told the Desert Sun that the department was notified of the death of a SunLine employee related to COVID-19 on Dec. 27. He also noted that he wasn’t immediately able to determine if the agency investigated SunLine as a result or if the “incident was not work-related.”
Maria Rendon told the Desert Sun her husband’s health deteriorated fast in early Dec., experiencing sudden onset of chills, body aches, and fatigue. Rendon tested positive for COVID-19 when he was admitted to the hospital on Dec. 12, about a week after he first showed symptoms. Maria later tested positive for the virus herself.
Cinthia Rendon, the daughter, reportedly said that until the end, her father was a loyal SunLine employee, repeatedly asking his family to ensure that his managers knew of his condition while he was hospitalized and that he wasn’t at work because of the virus. Cinthia said her husband filled out the paperwork for her father’s absence on his behalf and let the company know. According to her, the response from the agency was stilted. “Basically they said: ‘thanks for telling us,’ and that’s it,” she reportedly said.
Francisco Javier Rendon Jr., who also works as a bus driver for SunLine, reportedly said his father wasn’t the only employee to contract COVID-19. “About five mechanics were out sick at that time and another one tried to get leave to be tested and quarantined until the results came back and he was denied,” Franicsco Rendon Jr. told the Desert Sun. His father, the mechanic, and other workers shared a tight, small breakroom, where they regularly ate lunch. Rendon Jr. said he believes that’s how his father contracted the virus.
Rendon’s condition only worsened in the hospital, and Francisco Rendon Jr. said he remembers being told that his father’s lungs had both ruptured and he needed to be intubated. “The doctors had told us that he had a 5% chance of surviving,” Cinthia Rendon added. However, he died soon after.
The two said that despite their father’s loyal service, SunLine never acknowledged his death or informed other employees, many of whom had heard the news from the family. Other workers who knew Rendon offered donations for his funeral fund, Cinthia Rendon said.
They also said the agency has been unresponsive to their position that Rendon contracted the virus on the job, that SunLine downplayed the virus’ danger and that the agency pressured employees to keep working through the pandemic. “We’re 100% sure that he got it while he was working,” Cinthia Rendon said. “He took all the precautions and wouldn’t leave the house unless he went to work.”
Francisco Rendon Jr. said he was devastated by his father’s death, and when he called his boss soon after to ask for more time off, he was denied. And while on the phone with a human resources representative from the agency, he said he remembered the employee saying: “just be careful with the bus.”
The family’s attorney reportedly said that the Rendon family has reported that about 100 of SunLine’s 450 employees contracted the virus throughout the pandemic. SunLine did not respond to The Desert Sun’s request for information on how many employees have contracted the virus.
The Rendon family claims that employees complained to supervisors for months that they were not being provided with adequate cleaning and sanitation materials and they were forced to eat lunch and take breaks in a crowded room. But according to the complaint, their pleas fell on deaf ears, and some were even ridiculed or retaliated against for speaking up, they say.
The complaint also contends that between Apr. and Dec. 2020, multiple employees contracted COVID-19 but were denied leave and pressured to work, which ultimately led to a situation in which employees likely neglected to tell supervisors of their symptoms. The complaint claims that after Rendon’s death, SunLine began changing policies in an effort to stem the spread of the virus among employees, including rearranging break rooms and setting up a hand sanitizer stand for employee use.
The SunLine is currently operating at a Level 3 Service. Starting May 2, “after nearly a year of nixing the practice in order to reduce contact between riders and drivers due to the coronavirus pandemic,” the SunLine Transit Agency will begin collecting fares for bus trips again.