Frontline workers accuse Denver Health of union-busting as coronavirus puts pressure on the system

Denver approved a new contract with the hospital authority responsible for treating the city’s most vulnerable populations.

The Denver Health campus on November 23, 2020.

The Denver Health campus on November 23, 2020.

David Sachs/Denverite
staff photos

Denver City Council signed a new agreement on Monday with the city’s largest hospital and healthcare provider for uninsured residents as Denver Health staffers called for more worker protections and an end to what some called union-busting.

The contract between the city government and the hospital authority is worth almost $61.5 million and covers one year. Taxpayer dollars go toward the cost of uninsured and underinsured patients, emergency medical services, mental and physical public health initiatives, and medical services for prisoners.

The agreement also ensures pay raises of about 2.5 percent for about 225 workers, said Brad Membel, one of the hospital’s finance officials, during a meeting of the council’s safety committee on Nov. 4.

During a public hearing Monday night, employees did not speak against the contract, which keeps public funding flowing to the public hospital. But several workers spoke out against their employer in an attempt to create better public health outcomes.

Since March, local health professionals have navigated a pandemic that highlighted pay disparities between top executives receiving hefty bonuses and frontline workers. The crisis has also exposed grievances from hospital staffers, who unionized in May. Denver Health Workers United asked for more hazard pay, protective equipment, and better working conditions to help them stay safe while helping the public stay safe.

“I joined Denver Health Workers United because I believe many workers like me are certainly underpaid for the work that we provide,” said Sara Jungels, a certified nursing assistant. “On January first, my base pay of $14.35 will not meet the city of Denver’s minimum wage increase. And I’m not alone in this.”

Denver Health Workers United is not allowed to collectively bargain because it is a state entity, according to the union. Hospital CEO Robin Wittenstein said all employees will make Denver’s minimum wage requirements next year.

Katie Bakes, who runs the hospital’s “at-risk” intervention program, said executives have retaliated against her for recruiting union members. Others have accused hospital brass of union-busting after Wittenstein sent a letter to staffers in May that appeared to discourage signing up with the union.

“As you may have seen in the news, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) working under the banner of ‘Denver Workers United’ have become involved in trying to organize our employees,” Wittenstein wrote in an email. “Even though the CWA has no legal organizing authority at Denver Health, they or someone working for them may still attempt to solicit you into becoming a dues paying CWA member. It is my hope that we work directly together to address our issues.”

Wittenstein denied engaging in anti-union activities. “Our sense is that working directly with employees on the issues they raise is the best approach and that is the approach we have taken,” she said.

But Bakes said her experience “goes counter to the statement that there was no effort to undermine the union.”

Elected officials — three members of Congress, 14 state senators, 29 state representatives, and nine city council members — sent Wittenstein a letter later affirming workers’ rights to unionize later that month. Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval grilled Wittenstein on why the head of a public hospital did not respond.

“We did not feel like there was anything that needed to be responded to,” Wittenstein said, adding that the letter did not ask any specific questions.

Aside from better working conditions, union members have more of a voice, generally. They’ve asked hospital executives to be more responsive to the needs of frontline workers — and officials admitted they have fallen short.

“We were not serving our employees well,” said Kris Gaw, chief operating officer at Denver Health, during a meeting of the council’s safety committee on Nov. 4. “We heard that. We heard that wake-up call.” Higherups received training on how to “have better relationships with employees,” Gaw added.

The hospital also expedited a program to help workers deal with anxiety and other repercussions of working the frontlines of the pandemic. Wittenstein said executives are working to take the pressure off workers with programs like child support and tax credits.

Council members unanimously approved the agreement. Voting down a contract to fund the pillar of Denver’s public health infrastructure during a pandemic was never really an option.

“It doesn’t serve the city to vote down this operating agreement,” said City Councilwoman Jamie Torres. “It does, however, serve the city for you to be a better employer to respect the right of your employees to organize and give them a workplace that they feel safe and they can be proud of.”

 

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