Employees of healthcare center Denver Health have filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging retaliation for “raising concerns about systemic racism and speaking to the media about their experiences related to COVID-19,” according to a November 24 article from The Denver Post.
The lawsuit, made on behalf of Denver Health Workers United (DHWU), was filed by nonprofit law firm Towards Justice on November 23. The lawsuit was filed under the Whistleblower Protection Public Health Emergencies act, which was passed by the governor of Colorado in early July of this year.
The lawsuit alleges that “Denver Health has maintained and applied a policy of prohibiting workers from raising workplace concerns related to public health emergencies affecting the workplace and has retaliated against or threatened workers who speak out on those issues.” The lawsuit mentions 3 specific cases in which employees were allegedly retaliated against.
One of the 3 occasions mentioned in the lawsuit is the appearance by Denver Health paramedic Peter DellaVecchia on a Colorado Public Radio (CPR) broadcast and article in early October. In an interview, DellaVecchia discussed his work during the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges he was facing. Denver Health allegedly reprimanded DellaVecchia “for the interview and said it violated the medical center’s press policy,” The Denver Post article states. The lawsuit alleges that “DellaVecchia was passed over for special assignments despite meeting the qualifications,” according to the article.
The lawsuit also details the alleged retaliation against Dr. Katie Bakes, “an Emergency Room physician who has worked at Denver Health for twenty years.” Dr. Bakes founded Denver Health’s At Risk Intervention and Mentoring (AIM) program in 2012; the program works to provide “resources and support to young victims of violence, many of whom are people of color.” The AIM program also offers “support and training” to medical professionals “who experience workplace-related trauma because of their work in serving disadvantaged communities and witnessing firsthand the effects of systemic racism.” The lawsuit alleges that when Dr. Bakes attended a White Coats for Black Lives event in June of 2020, “she was informed that the AIM program’s funding was being cut immediately.” When supporters of the AIM program sent letters of support to Denver Health leaders urging them to reinstate the program funding, Denver Health allegedly “disciplined Dr. Bakes with verbal and written warnings for not getting along with leadership,” according to the lawsuit.
The third incident mentioned in the lawsuit occurred on October 14, 2020, when eight Denver Health employees “wrote an ‘open letter’ to their co-workers that addressed the intersecting public health emergencies of COVID-19 and systemic racism and how those emergencies were affecting Denver Health workers within the workplace,” the lawsuit states. The letter described the employees’ anxieties about taking the proper safety measures to avoid the virus and “spoke to the role that workers at Denver Health could play in calling-out for more forceful action to address ‘deep racial and class inequities of public health in the U.S.’”
The letter also mentioned that in past instances, Denver Health allegedly “actively discouraged workers from organizing or speaking out about issues related to workplace treatment and safety.” As a response to the workers’ letter, Denver Health allegedly engaged in “stigmatizing and threatening the workers who signed it,” according to the lawsuit. This alleged retaliation took the form of an email sent to Denver Health employees “admonishing signatories for obtaining worker email addresses by ‘accessing our system through their normal means,’ and telling all workers that dissemination of the letter violated its policies,” the lawsuit states.
DHWU “seek remedies available to whistleblowers proceeding on behalf of the State pursuant to C.R.S. § 8-14.4-107(2), including appropriate injunctive and equitable relief.” The lawsuit continues, “Most importantly, because Denver Health’s unwritten but widely enforced policy violates the PHEW Act, DHWU seeks an order requiring Denver Health to terminate its policy and to provide notice to 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.”
“The remedy here is for Denver Health to stop retaliating,” said Towards Justice attorney Valerie Collins in The Denver Post article. She added that Denver Health leaders should “acknowledge the fact that employees that are closest to this crisis are going to have solutions,” according to the article.
In a statement sent over email, Denver Health said that the “quasi-public” agency “has policies in place to protect employees from retaliation, if they raise concerns about the work environment,” according to the article. The statement continued, “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.”
The statement also said that Denver Health “supports employees bringing forward concerns related to racism, adding that in September the medical center joined other health organizations in declaring racism a public health crisis,” according to an article. “As the city’s safety-net hospital, we are deeply committed to advancing racial and social justice in our community and within our organization,” the statement said.