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Denver Health retaliated against those who spoke out about systemic racism and COVID-19, whistleblower complaint alleges

Denver Health employees have filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that the medical center retaliated against them for raising concerns about systemic racism and speaking to the media about their experiences related to COVID-19.

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The complaint said that on at least three occasions employees were reprimanded for speaking out about their concerns, including when a paramedic spoke to Colorado Public Radio about the challenges of responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

In that instance, which occurred in October, Denver Health reprimanded the employee, Peter DellaVecchia, for the interview and said it violated the medical center’s press policy, according to the complaint.

The complaint, which was filed by nonprofit Towards Justice on behalf of the employees, alleges that DellaVecchia was passed over for special assignments despite meeting the qualifications. The complaint was filed Monday.

“The remedy here is for Denver Health to stop retaliating,” said Valerie Collins, an attorney with Towards Justice, adding that leaders at the medical center should “acknowledge the fact that employees that are closest to this crisis are going to have solutions.”

A representative with Denver Health wasn’t immediately available for comment.

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The complaint was filed under the Whistleblower Protection Public Health Emergencies act, which was passed by state legislators this summer.

The law prohibits employers from discriminating or retaliating against workers who raise concerns about workplace health and safety practices, who wear their own personal protective equipment or who oppose a practice they consider unlawful.

So far, the state Department of Labor and Employment has received about a dozen of such complaints. The whistleblower investigations can take several months before there is a determination, said Scott Moss, director of the agency’s division of labor standards and statistics.

The whistleblower complaint also alleges that when emergency room physician Dr. Katie Bakes attended a White Coats for Black Lives event in June, she was told that funding for Denver Health’s At Risk Intervention and Mentoring program would be cut.

Supporters of the program, which Bakes founded in 2012, sent letters to Denver Health leaders “about the program’s pivotal role in combating institutional racism within Denver Health” and asked them to continue to provide it with financial support. In response, Bakes was given verbal and written warnings “for not getting along with leadership,” alleges the complaint.

In October, eight Denver Health employees wrote a letter to their co-workers about the overlap of COVID-19 and systemic racism, and the effect on workers at the medical center.

Denver Health officials responded to the letter by sending an email to employees “admonishing the 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,” alleges the complaint.

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