Heroic healthcare workers on the front line of a pandemic working in near-capacity ICUs have taken a stand and filed Colorado’s first whistleblower or qui tam complaint against Denver Health, alleging that the medical center has a policy of preventing workers from raising concerns about COVID-19 safety and systemic racism. Under Colorado’s new Public Health Emergency Whistleblower Law, it is illegal for employers to retaliate against workers who speak out about public health emergencies. Workers at Denver Health allege that their employer systematically squelches workplace speech when they raise concerns about workplace safety and health issues related to COVID-19 and systemic racism—both of which have been declared public health crises by Colorado and the City of Denver.
“These courageous healthcare professionals fight to keep our community safe, and they’ve spoken out to keep themselves and all of us safe too. They allege that their employer has worked to stifle their voice. But this pandemic has taught us that worker voice is a public health and safety imperative.”
Valerie Collins, Toward Justice
The complaint details multiple instances of retaliation. For example, Denver Health responded to an open letter that addressed the intersecting public health emergencies of COVID-19 and systemic racism and how those emergencies were affecting the workplace by sending an email to all Denver Health employees, admonishing the signatories of the letter and wrongly accusing them of improperly obtaining email addresses. In another instance, a prominent doctor advocating for anti-racism program funding was disciplined for her advocacy. And a paramedic who spoke to the media about the stresses and workplace health and safety dangers that he faces on the job was immediately reprimanded for speaking to the media on behalf of Denver Health, despite the fact the worker never represented he was speaking on behalf of Denver Health. A copy of the complaint is here.
The qui tam or whistleblower mechanism in Colorado’s new law allows workers with knowledge of violations—or groups representing those workers—to file complaints and bring suits on behalf of the State of Colorado. Especially when the State’s resources are strained because of budgetary pressures and many workers fear confronting their employer, the whistleblower mechanism is an important tool for ensuring that employers follow the law and keep workers safe. Colorado is the second state in the country with a qui tam provision specifically for workers’ rights violations, and this complaint is the first of its kind to be filed in Colorado.
“These courageous healthcare professionals fight to keep our community safe, and they’ve spoken out to keep themselves and all of us safe too. They allege that their employer has worked to stifle their voice. But this pandemic has taught us that worker voice is a public health and safety imperative,” said Towards Justice Attorney Valerie Collins.
Towards Justice is a nonprofit law firm that seeks to advance economic justice through impact litigation in support of human and civil rights, strategic policy advocacy, and collaboration with workers and communities. Founded in response to Colorado’s high volume of unaddressed wage theft complaints, the organization now advances legal claims that address systemic injustice and dismantle power imbalances that undermine the value of work and diminish worker rights. Using novel legal arguments to address a wide variety of abusive practices, Towards Justice litigators have represented hundreds of thousands of workers nationwide, challenged practices that reduce worker bargaining power, and supported marginalized people who challenge structural inequity.
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