Off Limits

Working hard
As an employee of the Half Price Store at 10755 West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood, it was Debbie Archer's job to make the displays -- including twenty or so mannequins -- "visually appealing" to encourage customers to buy clothes. Apparently, she was so good at it that the mannequins were also appealing to some of the store's employees. Very, very appealing.

In April last year, Archer discovered semen on one of the gray Styrofoam female mannequins in her office. Archer says an employee, maybe more than one, was having sex with the mannequin -- and not sex of the gentle, romantic kind. "The force of the people having sex with her was so great, it broke her in half," Archer says. Eventually the relationship turned violent, and Archer found that whoever was doing it was "mutilating the bodies and carving out orifices, including a vagina, to have better sex with the mannequin...and sticking pins in the nipples." All told, three mannequins were deflowered.

To make matters worse, when she told her bosses about the illicit activity, they ordered her and a co-worker to clean the violated mannequins by driving them through a car wash in Archer's convertible -- and to take home and wash the sheets on which the perpetrator or perpetrators had consummated their love. "We refused," says Archer.

One employee was eventually caught on videotape and fired, but no one else was accused, Archer says. She herself was fired in August 1998, supposedly for misusing a store discount card. But, she says, "I think I was targeted because of this."

After the Colorado Civil Rights Division failed to take any action, Archer's lawyer took the Half Price Store to Jefferson County District Court. Three weeks ago Archer won a settlement, although she is not allowed to name the dollar amount or even say the name of the store -- but it doesn't prevent her former co-workers from doing so, which one happily did. "It's just gross," the co-worker says. The manager at the Half Price Store referred questions to the company's corporate headquarters in Nebraska, but a spokesperson for the chain hadn't returned a phone call by press time.

Archer has yet to see her money, but she is also suing several employees of the store and hopes to land a spot on a talk show -- specifically, Roseanne's.

Archer also reported the entire situation to the local chapter of 9 to 5/National Association of Working Women, a group dedicated to improving working conditions for women. This week the organization named the winners of its Rate Your Job contest, in which working women nominate their employers with stories about "the good, the bad and the downright unbelievable," and Archer's sorry plight earned a special honorable mention in the last category. "It is downright unbelievable," she says. "People can't believe this happened in the first place. I talked to like seventy lawyers before I got one to take the case."

We haven't heard any reports that working conditions at Denver's two daily newspapers are that bad -- yet -- but the folks at the Denver Newspaper Guild, the union that represents many employees at the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post, are trying to set an example for how things should be, says guild employee Jennifer Portillo. She nominated the guild to 9 to 5 in the "good category," since her employer allowed her to keep her health benefits, sick days, mileage and hourly wage when she switched from working full-time to part-time to go back to school. "It's the best job I've ever had, by far," says Portillo, who is also on the board of 9 to 5. Unlike the Half Price Store mannequins, "they bent over backwards to accommodate me."

Portillo was an organizer for the guild, charged with persuading newspaper employees to join the union. "With the newspaper war going on, they drive down costs as much as possible, and it affects the employees," she says. "We are constantly fighting [the newspapers' management]." And conditions at the Rocky and the Post? "They suck," Portillo claims.

At least working conditions at the News and the Post haven't provoked an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor. Colorado's Ocean Journey isn't so lucky: A federal investigator is looking into complaints about employment-law violations there. Although Sam Perez, the director of enforcement for the labor department's Denver division, wouldn't discuss any aspect of the case, an anonymous letter delivered to aquarium co-founder Judy Petersen-Fleming and to Westword alleges that employees of the Life Support division are being mistreated. George Lindstrom, Ocean Journey's director of human resources, acknowledges that he has talked with an investigator at the labor department, but he says he hasn't been told about an investigation. "We had a conversation last week about them coming in, and I asked them specifically if there was an investigation, and I didn't get an answer," he says. "I don't know who sent the letter."

No, there are no mannequins at Ocean Journey.

Chalk this one up to a pair of Rocky Mountain-sized oysters
Eugene Dilbeck, president of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, is apparently so sure that voters on November 2 will approve a plan to expand the Colorado Convention Center that he has announced twelve tentative bookings.

Dilbeck -- who may already be attending Denver Broncos games at the unbuilt stadium and traveling to work on the non-existent light-rail line along I-25 -- says the conventions will bring 153,000 people and $228 million to Denver. The bookings begin in 2003 (when the proposed expansion would be completed) with the Christian Booksellers Association and the Society of Cable Television Engineers and extend all the way out to 2009, when the International Association of Fire Chiefs and celebrants of Digestive Disease Week are planning to be in town. (No need to make airline reservations just yet, folks.)

"Most of the major conventions -- 'city-wides,' as we call them, with more than 1,000 attendees -- usually book about four years out," says Jill Strunk, a spokeswoman for the visitors' bureau. "So some said, 'We need to book in 2004 anyway, so let's take a chance and book it in Denver.' It's their way of guaranteeing themselves a place in our rotation. Unfortunately, we won't know for sure until the day of the election, but we are confident."

Less confident is Pat Pistilli, who works for MP Associates in Boulder and plans conventions for the Design Automation Conference. Pistilli tentatively booked a date in Denver for 2005, but he also has agreements in other cities for that year. It seems he's been burned before. "We were supposed to be in San Diego next year," he says, but two angry citizens' groups nearly stopped the construction of a hotel that is supposed to go along with the San Diego Convention Center, and Pistilli pulled out. "I don't foresee the same problems in Denver that we saw in San Diego, but I don't want anything that iffy again," he says. Pistilli adds that he'll need to have black ink on his contract by June 2000 in order to come to Denver in 2005. "What I told [Dilbeck] was, yes, if [the expansion is passed] and everything goes through, that we would come here in 2005. If it were 2003, though, I wouldn't have committed."

High society
Regardless of the outcome of the convention-center vote, there will be plenty of partying on election night; tragically, however, the people's right to know has been severely impeded as a result of the sudden resignation of Shery McDonald, the Rocky Mountain News society columnist extraordinaire. Shery reportedly quit in anger when two names she had promised not to include appeared in one of her stories. Until the News names her replacement, Westword will fill in with one of our own black-tie-beat reporters.

The seen: Republican mover and shaker Don Bain was moving and shaking with Liz Orr, Mayor Wellington Webb's projects director, at the annual Booklover's Ball hosted by the Denver Public Library Friends Foundation on Friday. The fun pair made quite the dance team at the swanky affair, getting down to some big-band sounds.

Homing in on the other swells like a pair of guided missiles were our reporting rivals, Rocky Mountain News society writer Dawn Denzer and Denver Post society editor Joanne Davidson. Look out behind you, Dawn and Joanne! We're on your turf!

The scene: Troubleshooter Tom Martino took the stage Saturday night as the master of ceremonies for Puttin' on the Max, the annual dinner, dance and auction for the MaxFund no-kill animal shelter. But Martino didn't just sing the praises of the pooch parade. He also took the drums for one song with local rock 'n' rollers Opie Gone Bad. Opie might have been a raucous choice for the penguin-suit crowd at the Westin Tabor Center, but Martino -- a fan of the local alternative-music scene -- wasn't half bad!

If you have a tip, call Jonathan Shikes at 303-293-3555, send a fax to 303-296-5416, or e-mail

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