GEORGIA ON THEIR MINDS
A popular nurse at the Denver General Hospital AIDS clinic was forced to resign last week--under the threat of being fired--for bending the city's residency rule. The rule requires that city employees, including those at the hospital, live within the city and county of Denver.
However, nurse Georgia Caven contends that, despite owning a home outside the boundaries and admitting that she generally sleeps there, she was not in violation of the rule. She rents a Denver apartment, and she votes, files taxes and gets her nursing and driver's licenses in the city.
"But I don't have the money or the energy to fight this," she says. By tendering her resignation last Thursday, she will be allowed to stay on at the hospital until January 5. Otherwise, she would have been fired immediately. The city decided she was in violation after a hearing in early October.
Other employees of the hospital have urged Caven to take her case to court. They have even discussed the idea of forming a legal fund to assist her.
The Colorado Supreme Court has upheld the residency rule in the past, as have city voters. However, in Caven's case, the question wouldn't be whether the residency rule was itself unconstitutional, but rather: What constitutes residency?
Is it where you sleep at night? Or where you pay taxes, work and spend most of your time?
In Caven's case ("Denver or Busted," September 14), does it matter that she spends her free time volunteering at city homeless shelters and otherwise helping Denver's most destitute men, women and children?
Caven says she would like to fight. But she would be responsible for whatever legal bills there are above what the legal fund would cover--something she's been told could cost her more than $20,000. "And I just can't risk that," she says.
C.L. Harmer, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Hospitals, says of Caven's choice of resigning or being fired, "That's the way it's been for people who get caught."
It isn't the first time that a DGH nurse has fought the system. In the spring of 1993 a nurse sued the Department of Health and Hospitals, contending that the rule was being enforced inconsistently--and that it was being used in this case to punish her specifically because she resisted a transfer to night duty. The court agreed, and she was reinstated to her job. The Career Services Authority, which oversees city employee matters, also blasted DGH and Health and Hospitals administrators.
However, the ruling didn't change the residency law and, rather than move within the boundaries, the nurse resigned after one day. A short time later Mayor Wellington Webb said employees who broke the rule, as well as supervisors who aided them, would be subject to disciplinary action, including termination. The department stepped up efforts to ensure compliance.
Caven, who was hired for the DGH emergency room from another hospital outside the city, moved into Denver in the early 1980s to comply with the rule, absorbing a $20,000 loss from the sale of her home in Golden. Several years later, after being physically assaulted at her Denver apartment, she purchased a second home outside the city to sleep in--while renting the Denver apartment to comply with her interpretation of the rule.
Reaction at the AIDS clinic is one of anger. Caven is known for work habits that go above and beyond the call of duty, including visiting patients after work hours in hospices and at their homes.
Some patients threatened last week to stage a protest on the hospital campus. Many have only a short time to live and have counted on Caven to see them through to the end.
"But [city and department administrators] don't give a flying rip about my patients," says Caven, who notes that many of them are gay. "Only their rule. These patients are disenfranchised as a group in the first place. This is just one more thing being done to them."
Dr. Adam Myers, who heads the oncology unit at the AIDS clinic and who hired Caven there, says losing the nurse will cause a great amount of disruption and additional misery for the patients. Caven, he says, not only performed as a registered nurse but also was often the patients' main link to available health and social-service programs and between the clinic and hospices.
"I still can't believe it's going to happen," Myers says. "I'm numb."
There is a possibility that Caven may be hired by the Visiting Nurses Association to continue the connection for patients between the DGH clinic and their homes. The position will require federal funding.
Caven says she hopes the funding comes through so she doesn't lose contact with her patients. But even if she gets the job, she will take a large salary cut and will lose her seniority and other accrued benefits after nearly fifteen years at DGH.
Caven, in a letter to the mayor, wrote, "There are people selling drugs during work time, fudging on the number of hours they work, burned out on their duties, unkind and disrespectful to the patients, and barely producing the minimum requirement for job performance.
"And they remain honored employees, while I am losing my job.
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