Rachel Irwin, second from right, was unexpectedly fired from her job as a VA hospital custodian on August 15, one week before she protested understaffing at the hospital with union leadership.EXPAND
Rachel Irwin, second from right, was unexpectedly fired from her job as a VA hospital custodian on August 15, one week before she protested understaffing at the hospital with union leadership.
Grant Stringer

Transgender Employee Fired by VA Hospital Contests Decision

Her supporters at the Denver Veterans Medical Center came in droves after Rachel Irwin, a transgender employee, was fired from her job as a graveyard custodian for "inappropriate conduct and unwelcomed comments, containing sexual overtures, toward a coworker," according to a letter she received from the hospital's human-resources department.

Irwin's termination stems in part from an incident in a break room in March 2017, when she says she showed a photo of herself in pajamas to a co-worker.

After the incident, she was told to "cease and desist" all communication with that co-worker — and colleagues say she did so —  until she was unexpectedly fired on August 15. Since then, Irwin has drawn support from many different departments in the Veterans Affairs hospital as she appeals the process, alleging that she was discriminated against because she is transgender.

"This doesn’t make any sense. I am one of their best employees — and they want to just get rid of me over a conduct thing that I have overcome and changed, and wasn’t as inappropriate as they made it out to be," Irwin says. "I just think they didn’t want me in there because of who I am."

Irwin was hired at the hospital in October 2016 as a housekeeping aid in the Department of Environmental Management Services. She maintained the hallways, offices, bathrooms and other facilities in the mental-health ward, where veterans experiencing mental-health crises receive medical treatment.

In nearly twenty letters of support, co-workers say that Irwin also went "above and beyond" to clean many other departments in the hospital, as well as the offices of administrative and clinical staff, while working with exceptional dedication to veterans' care.

"Before Ms. Irwin came to work...it was not uncommon for hallway floors to go unswept for weeks at a time," wrote Bill Milliken, a social worker who works with homeless veterans at the hospital. "On the rare occasions that the hallways were swept the accumulated dirt and detritus was pushed into a corner or a stairwell, often for months on end. Staff offices and interview rooms were not vacuumed for months at a time and trash cans were never emptied.... All this changed when Ms. Irwin started working on our floor."

"She took the opportunity to go above and beyond what was needed which is not something that I've typically seen of some of the other housekeepers," wrote Daleena Scott, a health-care administrator at the hospital. "She is the only housekeeper that I've seen in the years that I've been at the VA to clean the Women's Bathroom thoroughly and with pride."

The hospital's human-resources department, which is responsible for Irwin's termination, would not comment on the case.

Irwin says that her job at the hospital was more than just a stepping stone. Years as a drug addict frequenting Colfax Avenue landed her with eight felony charges and fifteen years in prison, and afterward, she says, it was very hard to find a job with her record.

"So I was going above and beyond what anyone else has ever done, according to those letters, as you can tell," she says.

While Irwin worked night shifts at the hospital, she was also living at a halfway house, volunteering there during the day. She also volunteered with the hospital's LGBT employee committee and was credited in a letter of support from its manager, Tracey K. Gentilucci, for spearheading new ways to inform LGBT people of job opportunities at the VA hospital.

Anjanette Ruscetta-DeMark, a co-worker and friend of Irwin's, says that some individuals at the hospital seemed to have it out for Irwin because of her transgender identity. "It possibly sounds like discrimination," she says. "I've worked at the VA for seventeen years, and I've seen a lot.... I just think it is because Rachel is a very outgoing person, and she likes people and she'll talk to anybody. But some people just find transgender people — well, I don't want to say they are offended, but, you know, they just get uncomfortable."

According to the hospital's official policy, LGBT individuals are encouraged to apply for employment positions and participate in programs like the LGBT employment committee.

Irwin has contested her termination through the federal Office of Resolution Management process, but after a recent arbitration session, she says she is unsure whether she will keep up the fight. However, she is still volunteering at the hospital and is active with her labor union, the American Federation of Government Employees.

"I don't really know what I am doing," says Irwin. "At this point I'm just trying to keep my head above water."

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