The Newsom administration hired contractor SLSCO to screen, test and vaccinate migrants crossing California’s southern border this year, not far from where the company built large sections of border wall to keep migrants out.
The state awarded a no-bid contract to SLSCO — the company former president Donald Trump tapped to build his border wall in California — for COVID-19 response and health care staffing. The contract is currently worth up to $350 million.
Since entering office, Gov. Gavin Newsom repeatedly criticized Trump’s border wall, calling it “political theater.” California even filed a lawsuit against the former president to halt construction at the border, including projects by SLSCO.
The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has dispatched over 6,000 medical personnel from SLSCO to county health departments, mass vaccination sites and clinics around the state. That includes five locations along the border, where SLSCO personnel delivered COVID-19 services to nearly 60,000 migrants. Staff recruited by the company were also sent to community health organizations that provided COVID-19 services to farmworkers and undocumented immigrants.
The department said it was not aware of the company’s history building border walls in California.
Throughout the pandemic, and especially during his administration’s vaccine rollout, Newsom emphasized the importance of building trust with hard-to-reach communities, including undocumented immigrants. But immigration advocates and community health care leaders said they were appalled by the state’s partnership with SLSCO.
Britta Guerrero, CEO of the Sacramento Native American Health Center, called it “disheartening.” Her organization worked on campaigns to vaccinate hard-to-reach communities, including migrant farmworkers. Unbeknownst to Guerrero, medical personnel from SLSCO were assigned to some of their vaccination efforts.
“We put our patients and underserved folks at the center of everything we do,” she said. “We would have never considered a partnership like that.”
We put our patients and underserved folks at the center of everything we do. We would have never considered a partnership like that.
In an email, CDPH said SLSCO was “the largest supplier of bilingual staff” for the state’s vaccination effort and “was useful in the state’s equity campaign that resulted in more Californians in underserved communities getting vaccinated.”
Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico Border Program, scoffed at this notion.
“It almost sounds like a joke to me, to use that rationale,” he said. “A number of [other] companies could have provided the same type of service.”
Newsom’s office did not respond to a detailed, 450-word email requesting an interview to discuss the contract and the governor’s repeated assurances to undocumented and Latino communities during the pandemic.
There’s no indication the contract violated any laws. California has so far paid SLSCO at least $172 million under the contract, more than the Trump administration awarded the company to build a controversial stretch of border wall in San Diego. The Newsom administration used its expanded pandemic emergency authority to skip the bidding process typically required by law to vet companies. Around 350 staff from SLSCO remained in California as of late September, with more potentially on the way as booster shots and student vaccine mandates roll out.
State and county public health officials in California said SLSCO has provided quality health care staffing. But the company’s COVID-19 work in other states has been dogged by controversy.
The company declined an interview request and did not address specific questions via email. In a statement, spokesperson Liz Rogers said SLSCO was “honored” to work with CDPH and that its “role is to supply staff of varying skill sets and staff types” to fulfill shortages around the state.
Newsom has previously faced controversy for his contracting practices during the pandemic. A CapRadio investigation earlier this year found over a billion dollars in no-bid COVID-19 contracts went to companies that contributed more than $700,000 to the governor and his political campaigns. Government ethics experts identified no illegal wrongdoing, but said the situation showed poor discretion and could undermine public trust.
Staffing border sites
In January, the Newsom administration awarded a no-bid, $10 million contract to SLS Health Services LLC, an SLSCO subsidiary established during the pandemic. The agreement outlined the state’s medical staffing needs in response to the winter surge in COVID-19 cases.
In an email, CDPH said the agreement was one of 12 staffing contracts the state entered into during the pandemic.
Over the next five months, the contract ballooned to up to $1 billion — just as Newsom pushed to get more Californians vaccinated, including a concerted effort to reach underserved populations disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, such as Latino and undocumented communities.
CDPH reduced the contract amount by $650 million last week. This came after CapRadio sent a detailed list of questions about the state’s partnership with the company. In an email, the department said the reduced amount is “a more accurate reflection of the contract’s spending based on the invoice history.”
One main reason the contract’s value increased substantially from its initial price tag: delivering services at the border.
According to CDPH, over 150 workers from SLSCO have staffed five border sites since March. Nearly 70 remain. There are three sites in San Diego County and one in both Riverside and Imperial counties. CDPH declined to provide specific locations for the border sites.
Since April, the staff has administered nearly 60,000 tests and over 12,000 vaccinations at the border. In total, 57,024 migrants were served, according to the CDPH.
The department could not specify where the migrants went after receiving those services.
During the pandemic, Newsom has repeatedly spoke about his administration’s support for undocumented Californians and the steps it took to mitigate the outsize impact on them. CDPH said the work by SLSCO is part of the state’s “unprecedented humanitarian efforts at the border.”
But Rios with the American Friends Service Committee said hiring a company to screen and vaccinate vulnerable migrants, after it “profited from building structures of hatred along the US-Mexico border,” is an affront to immigrant communities.
“It shows a lack of historical memory, to [not] hold accountable those companies that were profiting from that type of business,” he said.
And Newsom has a long track record of bashing Trump’s border wall, going so far as to call it "a monument to stupidity.” California also led a 16-state lawsuit against Trump over the wall, as SLSCO began work on projects along the state’s southern border.
Newsom even dragged Trump on Twitter when a portion of SLSCO’s border wall collapsed from a gust of wind.
"I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall."— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) January 30, 2020
Rios questioned whether the administration adequately vetted SLSCO while negotiating the no-bid contract, and whether anyone knew the company was involved in building the southern border wall.
“Or is it simply just swept under the rug?” he asked.
CapRadio asked if the public health department knew about the company’s recent history building border walls in California.
“CDPH would not have been aware of activities that were not related to the scope of this contract’s original mission” of providing health care staffing, the department said in an emailed response.
Community health groups frustrated
Thousands of medical personnel from SLSCO were dispatched to county health departments, mass vaccination sites and clinics around the state.
Some wound up working with community-based groups that aimed to vaccinate migrant farmworkers and undocumented Californians.
In Riverside County, for example, the state sent 69 medical workers from SLSCO over the summer to help staff mobile vaccination units. The county dispatches those units throughout the community, according to county public health spokesperson Jose Arballo Jr.
That includes staffing vaccine campaigns through TODEC Legal Center, a nonprofit with the mission of helping “recent immigrants learn English, secure citizenship, and create new connections in their chosen community.”
Executive director Luz Gallegos said she had no idea some of the staff came from SLSCO. She was under the impression the nurses were employees of the county public health department.
“To the farmworkers … we’re here to celebrate them, truly essential workers,” said Newsom. He added that the state had “a unique responsibility to do more and do better to support them, and frankly we haven’t done enough.”
Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun via AP , Pool
SLSCO staff began working with Riverside County in June. Since then, the county has continued to hold vaccine drives at food processing and distribution plants, where workers at the facilities and in the fields are immunized.
“It’s likely that SLS nurses were providing the vaccinations,” Arballo said. He added that SLS staff “are completing their work in a satisfactory manner and provided critically needed vaccines.”
The county did not address questions from CapRadio about whether using SLSCO staff raised potential ethical concerns, given the county’s focus on building connections with undocumented and farmworker communities during the pandemic.
The state also sent 10 staff from SLSCO to work on vaccine campaigns organized by the Sacramento Native American Health Center and La Familia Counseling Center. The groups helped run a series of pop-up vaccination clinics, including ones aimed at immunizing farmworkers and undocumented communities.
“We represent Black and Brown communities, underserved folks,” said Guerrero, who leads the Sacramento Native American Health Center. “Keeping our communities and our patients safe is at the center of who we are. So working with an organization that has done the opposite — it's hurtful.”
Guerrero, along with leadership from La Familia, said they had no knowledge that SLSCO personnel were assigned to their campaigns, and that they wouldn’t have used those medical staff had they known.
Guerrero argued there should be stronger disclosure requirements in these situations so community organizations know who is participating in their work.
“Any potential conflict, whether that is a conflict of ethics or values, I think should be disclosed up front,” she said. “We need to have all of the information to make the best decisions for our community, and I don't feel like we were given that opportunity.”
High quality staff, controversy in other states
During the pandemic, SLSCO made an abrupt pivot to health care services.
It has delivered medical staffing services and built field hospitals in at least half-a-dozen states across the country. Before that, the company specialized as a general contractor in disaster response and construction. In addition to erecting portions of the southern border wall, the company helped rebuild in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and in New York City after Superstorm Sandy.
While SLSCO’s foray into health care is relatively new, CDPH said it had faith in the company’s ability to deliver. In an email, the department said it strives to attract “the highest level of health care staff in the nation” through its staffing contracts, and it believed SLSCO could meet that bar.
Madera County public health director Sara Bosse said the company did provide high-quality medical personnel.
“They were professional and did a great job meeting the needs that we had,” she said.
The state sent 85 SLSCO medical staff to Madera County. Bosse said they were better trained and more reliable than personnel provided by a different staffing agency the state previously contracted with, though she declined to provide the other company’s name.
According to Bosse, SLSCO personnel worked at all of the county’s vaccination clinics because Madera County did not have adequate local clinical staff.
“I’d be very surprised if there weren’t undocumented people at our vaccination clinics,” she said.
Bosse said she was unaware of SLSCO’s history with border wall construction. As a public health director, she said her top concern is ensuring Madera County residents have access to the vaccine and quality care. She added that her department relied on the state for staffing because it is difficult and time consuming for small counties to negotiate contracts, especially with deep labor shortages in the health care industry.
But some of SLSCO’s work in other states has been met with controversy.
Early in the pandemic, New York City spent more than $52 million on converting the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center into a 350-bed field hospital for COVID-19 patients, according to the New York Times. The arena served fewer than 80 patients before closing in mid-May. Meanwhile, emergency rooms throughout the city suffered from overcrowding, including a nearby Queens hospital that had a refrigerated truck stationed outside for the growing number of dead bodies.
New York City also awarded SLSCO a no-bid contract in spring of 2020 to transform a Brooklyn cruise terminal into a 670-bed temporary medical site, according to THE CITY. The facility cost $21 million and shut down without serving a single patient, only weeks after it opened.
City officials told the New York Times and THE CITY that the field hospitals closed after cases started to level off. Case rates spiked again in late 2020 and early 2021.
In Texas last year, the state commissioned SLSCO to convert a Harlingen conference center into a 96-bed field hospital. The facility sat empty for a while, and ultimately served fewer than 60 patients before closing two months later.
The California Department of Public Health said these past controversies were not a consideration when they vetted SLSCO.
“As we did not ask them to build entire field hospitals, this does not apply,” the department stated in an email.
Under the state’s contract, the number of SLSCO staff in California has dwindled to about 350. But it could increase in the near future. CDPH said it will continue to rely on contractors, such as SLSCO, “to support timely execution” of booster shots and school vaccine mandates.
SLSCO has also started contracting directly with local health departments who want to continue using the company’s staff — “now that FEMA funding has been depleted for California,” CDPH said in an email.
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