Up to Their Necks

Racial problems and all-around surliness abound at the Denver Health engineering department.

Atkinson thinks he was fired because he had complained so much about the noose. "To me, it was outlandish," he says. "At the same time, it was an opportunity for people to have their revenge."

Some in the department say the only real problem in engineering was Atkinson himself. They suggest the 46-year-old was a "problem child" who hyped the noose affair strictly to try to win a settlement in court. "I think they should just let it go," says a black employee who spoke on condition of anonymity. "With Don Atkinson, that's a bunch of bullshit and crap."

"Donald never found that noose offensive," says a white employee. "Donald was never up in the parts room anyway. Nobody thought anything about this. Basically, Donald was unsatisfied because he wasn't getting his work done."

"I always got my work done," Atkinson responds. He says that while other black workers talked about using the noose as a path to payday, he wasn't among them. "If that was the case, I'd have gone and filed suit the day they strung up the doll."

One thing is certain: The name-calling and hurt feelings reflect the poor morale employees say has set in at Denver Health ever since it changed from being a city department to a private, self-sustaining agency in January 1997.

Once the switch took place, employees were divided among those who opted to remain city employees and those who decided to work as employees of the health authority. City employees had more protection from being fired, but health-authority employees had more flexibility in retirement programs and benefits.

Former engineering-division supervisor Fred Kessler took advantage of a retirement program before the authority took over.

"As far as the hospital itself, there are morale problems," Kessler says. "I think management figured there would be. Employees felt disempowered because they didn't have any say in the decision."

Kessler adds that bad morale wasn't created by the new authority alone. He says the life-and-death medical atmosphere tends to filter through the institution.

Adriaanse thinks that morale is "fairly stable. I think you'll have areas of discontent, but overall, we have a good workforce." But discontent appears to breed in engineering, a department of some fifty people who don't seem to like each other.

The black employee who requested anonymity acknowledges that Atkinson may have been the victim of racial epithets. "It's conceivable, because he is black and he makes himself really unlikable. If you're gonna be abrasive and uncooperative and just a piece of shit, nobody's gonna like you."

However, the employee adds, "there's a lot of hard feelings in engineering. Ved doesn't get a whole lot of respect. It could be that he's a little tiny brown person."

Some employees say Varma has a tough time with both management and his subordinates. "He is a wimp," says Don Guthrie, a former foreman. "He's got no backbone. He talks a good game about discrimination and rights, but then says, 'I can't help you.'"

"He didn't fight for me," Atkinson says. "He was always walking around saying he was for the minorities. But he would never fight for any of us. The consensus is that Ved is out for Ved."

Stovall, though, defends Varma. "He has not been allowed to direct his own department," she says. And Kessler, Atkinson's old boss, adds, "A lot of Ved's problem is he's only a director. He has people to report to. He can only go so far."

As for Atkinson, he has twice visited Butch Montoya, manager of the city's Department of Public Safety, and he delivered a letter to the doorstep of Mayor Wellington Webb, who lives nearby, but has heard nothing back. He's also contacted the NAACP, but the organization's legal counsel, Anne Sulton, says his complaint has not yet been investigated. An appeals hearing over his termination is scheduled for January. Meanwhile, he's getting ready to start a new part-time job.

Atkinson acknowledges that the nooses were removed and that he never saw them again, but he says management was never able to control the behavior of his co-workers. "I don't think they really cared," he says.

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