Day in, day out, Alina Mendizabal’s boss was making her life a living hell.
There was scapegoating and public scolding, unwarranted write-ups and constant scrutiny. Sometimes the bully boss would go out of the way to “randomly” pop into Alina’s office just to intimidate her.
“I called her the devil’s daughter because she was just an evil person,” says Alina, who at the time was a marketing representative at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, where she’s worked for more than three decades. “She had her puppets and she would use them to do her dirty work too so sometimes she would be bullying me indirectly.”
Then, after one particularly brutal day, Alina made up her mind: She would quit her cherished position because while she loved helping patients, the abuse at the hands of her bully boss was just too much to bear.
“I was crying all the time, called off or went home early sick many times, and the stress was unbelievable,” she said. “I was on the brink of a nervous breakdown and quitting and went into work that day ready to give my notice. But then, out of nowhere, the union appeared.”
Hearing Alina tell it sounds like a scene out of a movie:
“I had never seen this man before and out of nowhere he appeared. He was calm and saw how distressed I was and offered to help me. With that I went from despair and depression to hope,” Alina recalled. “I saw a glimmer of light, by someone telling me that I could grieve this unacceptable abuse of authority, and it was the best thing in the world.”
Alina told the man, who turned out to be a new SEIU organizer for her worksite, about what had been going on with her boss and he helped her file a grievance documenting the monster manager’s transgressions.
“She was very intimidating but we had records and we had proof. Unfortunately, she didn’t get removed altogether but she was transferred out and couldn’t harm me anymore,” Alina said. “That’s when I realized what it really meant to having a union behind you because before I thought I was just on my own.”
But Alina didn’t stop there.
She wanted more than to just get rid of her own boss – she wanted to change the culture that allowed bully bosses to flourish. “The bullies in the school yard became adults and became bullies in the workplace,” she said. “It’s an epidemic.”
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 60 million Americans are affected by workplace bullying, with bosses making up 61 percent of bullies.
The Institute’s national survey done in June 2017 also found that 29 percent of employees who are targets of bullies remain silent about their experiences. Sadly, it found that 40 percent of people targeted by a bully experience stress-related health problems including debilitating anxiety, panic attacks, and clinical depression (39 percent).
After seeing how much SEIU 721 helped in her case, Alina decided to become more active in the union, serving as a steward, an elected bargaining unit member, and eventually a member of the SEIU 721 Executive Board. Having gone through her own experience with workplace bullying, she was determined to have the issue become one of SEIU 721’s campaigns for that bargaining year.
That push ultimately led to anti-bullying language being added to all Los Angeles County contracts; the language is also spreading to contracts SEIU721 members are negotiating in other regions.
Another recent campaign involved setting up meetings for LA County workplace bullying victims to share their stories with Department of Health Services executives. As person after person went forward, Alina couldn’t help but feel validated and vindicated.
“All these people were backing up what I had experienced myself,” she said. “We were coming out of the shadows and saying this was a very real problem and people were suffering, people were literally dying. And now, we were doing something to fight back and make sure there were NO MORE Victims.”
So far numerous bullying “elements” have been removed from worksites all over LA County DHS. The mission now is to continue educating workers and letting them know they can stand up for themselves because, as Alina says, “An injury to one worker is an injury to all workers.”
A CAREER WITH THE COUNTY
Alina’s journey with the county almost didn’t happen.
Her dad was a mailman at Olive View and told her to apply for a job. However, Alina, an extrovert who’d always imagined a career working with people, did not want to work near blood, guts or needles, was hesitant to apply.
Still, her dad kept insisting she turn in an application. Begrudgingly, she did and got the job as a Patient Financial Services Worker.
A year later she was promoted to the CHP Marketing Rep position. It was right up her alley and 33 years later, she’s still working in the “job of her dreams.”
“It was a good lesson in just taking chances and going for good opportunities even though they might not look like exactly that you’re expecting,” she said.
“Even when I was personally going through hell, the Marketing Rep work has always been very rewarding,” she said. “I’ve enrolled not just mommies and families but later their grown children’s kids! Three generations of families choosing DHS as their Provider of Choice! It’s a beautiful thing.”
And now, as a Healthcare Transformation Advocate Coordinator for the Health Agency, her “Partnership” work involves promoting the “Just Culture” Campaign, amongst many other projects, to help set the foundation for more harmonious and productive work environments.
She’s gotten numerous awards for her work, which involves everything from coordinating employee education and benefits fairs at hospitals around LA County to helping to create and implement new policies while serving as a liaison between labor and management.
“I get to help change the way we do business,” she said. “I get to change the way bosses and employees work together to make it better. When you have happy employees you have happy patients.”
AN ALL-AMERICAN STORY
Alina was just a baby when she came to the States as a refugee with her mom, brother and grandparents from their native Cuba. The family settled in the San Fernando Valley, where her grandparents raised her and her brother while their hard-working mom held down several factory jobs, eventually retiring as a supervisor at the California Department of Rehabilitation.
Her family means everything to her, both her immediate loved ones as well as her brothers and sisters in SEIU 721 and in the labor movement overall.
Self-described as a “total Valley girl,” Alina still lives in the SFV with her husband of 27 years and their adult son and daughter. She’s active in several community groups where she’s involved in leadership, advocacy and volunteering.
Faith is a large part of her life and Alina says she couldn’t have gotten through the bullying ordeal without it. She found one Bible verse, Psalm 25:15, particularly comforting:
“My eyes are ever on the Lord,
for only He will release my feet from the snare.”
“That one quote, that’s what helped me get through it all,” she said. “I needed God because I didn’t want to give in to my bully, bullies take great pride and pleasure in seeing you suffer so I just tried to cope. I didn’t want them to get that satisfaction.”
As trying as the bullying situation was, Alina is grateful for the changes her experience has helped bring about. So, what does she want other workplace bullying victims to know?
“I want them to know they are valuable,” she said. “What they feel and what they think is of value and they matter. We need the quiet ones to speak up because they have so much to offer. But for the ones who aren’t able to speak up, they should always reach out to me and I’ll help them. I’ll be their voice. I’m there for them.”