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Complaint alleges Denver Health prevented employees from speaking out against racism, COVID-19

A complaint filed on behalf of the union that represents Denver Health workers claims the hospital suppressed whistleblowers.

DENVER — A new whistleblower complaint alleges that Denver Health has prevented and retaliated against some workers for speaking out against systemic racism and safety issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The complaint, dated Monday, was provided to 9NEWS by the law firm Towards Justice, which represents the union Denver Health Workers United. 

A Denver Health statement in response to the allegations read in part: 

"Denver Health has policies in place to protect employees from retaliation if they raise concerns about the work environment. We are committed to building a culture of safety, respect and equity for all employees in which anyone can raise concerns, either with their manager or by contacting our confidential Values Line. 

While we hope that employees will raise matters directly with us, the Colorado Public Health Emergency Whistleblower Law is an important tool to protect employees from retaliation if they raise public health concerns."

The complaint asks that the state issue an injunction against what it calls Denver Health’s “unwritten policy” that it says prevents employees from speaking out despite their rights under a law meant to protect whistleblowers.

"Oh, well there's a lot of concerns, right? I mean we're in the middle of a pandemic. This summer we're seeing, you know, rioting about racial tension," said Valerie Collins, an attorney for Towards Justice. "And so, it's really just the perfect time .... to protect employee rights to speak out about public health in the workplace." 

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The allegations listed in the complaint include:

  • An incident where multiple Denver Health employees signed and emailed the organization an open letter regarding COVID-19 and systemic racism. According to Towards Justice, Denver Health responded by “admonishing the signatories of the letter and wrongly accusing them of improperly obtaining email addresses.”
  • An emergency room physician involved in anti-racism issues said funding to her At Risk Intervention and Mentoring (AIM) program was cut after she attended a White Coats for Black Lives event. In response, supporters of the program sent letters to the hospital’s management, but the complaint alleges the doctor was disciplined for “not getting along with leadership.”
  • In October 2020, a Denver Health emergency medical services professional granted an interview with Colorado Public Radio to discuss the burnout experienced by health-care workers. The complaint alleges that the worker was reprimanded for violating Denver Health’s press policy and passed over for special assignment opportunities as a result.

The complaints alleges that each of these incidents violates the state’s Colorado Public Health Emergency Whistleblower (PHEW) Act and asks that Denver Health “provide notice to its employees of their right to speak out publicly or to each other about workplace concerns related to COVID-19 and systemic racism without fear of reprisal, threat or retaliation of any kind.”

"One of the reasons that we're doing this is we want people to learn more about the law, and also to know that you're not alone," Collins said. "It's really easy to feel isolated when you're having these issues or when you're feeling silence in the workplace and that's super hard right it's super stressful, especially during times like this."

Both the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism have been declared public health emergencies by the city of Denver. 

Read Denver Health's full statement about the complaint below: 

"Denver Health has policies in place to protect employees from retaliation if they raise concerns about the work environment. We are committed to building a culture of safety, respect and equity for all employees in which anyone can raise concerns, either with their manager or by contacting our confidential Values Line.

While we hope that employees will raise matters directly with us, the Colorado Public Health Emergency Whistleblower Law is an important tool to protect employees from retaliation if they raise public health concerns.

Denver Health fully supports any employee bringing forward issues or concerns relating to racism. As the city’s safety-net hospital, we are deeply committed to advancing racial and social justice in our community and within our organization. In September, Denver Health joined a consortium of health care organizations around the country in declaring racism a public health crisis and committing our resources to spark meaningful change in our community.  We are working on our own three year Equity Blueprint to help develop our strategic approach to dealing with these important issues.

We will provide an appropriate response as required to any formal complaint received through legal or regulatory channels."

RELATED: Colorado leaders taking more steps to address racial disparities during COVID-19 pandemic

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