State Watch

Whistleblower complaint alleges hospital system retaliated against racism, COVID-19 criticism

A whistleblower complaint filed on Monday alleges that a Denver hospital system retaliated against employees who presented concerns about racism and COVID-19 protocols. 

Denver Health employees submitted the complaint through nonprofit Towards Justice to the state Department of Labor and Employment. The whistleblower workers allege that Denver Health has "an unwritten policy" to retaliate against employees who speak out about the "public health emergencies" of racism and COVID-19.

The complaint details at least three incidents, in which employees were punished after addressing their concerns about either topic. 

"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 complaint reads. 

One of these situations the complaint cited involved an Oct. 14 open letter signed by eight Denver Health employees discussing the intersection of COVID-19 and systemic racism and how that was affecting workers during the pandemic. 

The hospital system responded by "stigmatizing and threatening the workers who signed it" and "telling all workers that dissemination of the letter violated its policies."

The complaint also asserts that Denver Health passed up on a paramedic for special assignments after he spoke to Colorado Public Radio regarding challenges emergency response personnel were dealing with during the pandemic.

The hospital also allegedly told the paramedic Peter DellaVecchia that the interview violated its press policy. 

The third situation involved emergency room physician Katie Bakes, who attended a White Coats for Black Lives event in June before being informed that funding for the At Risk Intervention and Mentoring program that she founded would be reduced. 

When supporters of the program wrote to Denver Health "about the program's pivotal role in combating institutional racism," leaders gave Bakes verbal and written warnings "for not getting along with leadership," according to the complaint. 

"The remedy here is for Denver Health to stop retaliating," Valerie Collins, an attorney with Towards Justice, said, according to The Denver Post. She added the leadership at Denver Health should "acknowledge the fact that employees that are closest to this crisis are going to have solutions."

Denver Health employees filed their complaint under the Whistleblower Protection Public Health Emergencies Act, which passed over the summer and prevents employers from discriminating or retaliating against those who express worries about the safety protocols of their workplace. 

Scott Moss, the director of the department's Division of Labor Standards and Statistics, told The Hill in a statement that the agency has confirmed about a dozen complaints under the new law.

Denver Health said in a statement that it has policies "to protect employees from retaliation if they raise concerns about the work environment." The hospital system also said it "fully supports any employee bringing forward issues or concerns relating to racism."

"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 said.

"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," it added.

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

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