Denver Health Workers to Form Union Amid COVID-19 Crisis

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Nurses and other front-line health-care workers at one of Denver's largest hospitals are forming a union to fight for more equitable pay and better workplace protections as they continue to battle the coronavirus pandemic.

Denver Health Workers United, a committee representing "dozens" of Denver Health employees, announced today, May 5, that it is organizing with the Communications Workers of America, whose members include more than 40,000 health-care workers in hundreds of chapters across the country.

"We are announcing today the formation of Denver Health Workers United, an independent voice for front-line healthcare workers at DH and a union open to any employee," the group wrote in a letter to hospital CEO Robin Wittenstein. "In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen the urgent need for an organization that advocates for us."

In a press release, the CWA and Denver Health Workers United said that the union aims to "fight for workers' rights, institutional change, and meaningful public investment to improve patient health outcomes," and included several anonymous quotes from the committee's organizers, citing concerns about potential retribution. Across the country, hospital workers have been punished and even fired for speaking out about working conditions during the pandemic.

"They don't want anybody to lose their job right now," says Thomas Walker, a lead activist with the CWA. "Not only because they don't want to lose their livelihoods, but also because the hospital just literally can't afford to lose nurses or other caregivers during this crisis. They need all hands on deck."

"I’m joining the union because the COVID crisis has brought to light several issues that have existed for front-line staff and we need to do something about it," a nurse organizing with the group said. "With a united voice, we can advocate for ourselves and therein provide better care for our patients.”

Denver Health has faced criticism from employees and Denver City Council members since CBS4 reported that top executives recently received performance bonuses ranging from $29,000 to $230,000, just days after front-line staff were asked to begin taking unpaid leave to prevent layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts. In meetings with hospital employees at the end of April, Wittenstein apologized for the "timing" of the bonus payments, though she also criticized the media over the story, according to CBS4.

A spokesperson for Denver Health declined to comment on the employees' announcement, but several state and local elected officials expressed support for the new union.

"We have seen all over the country our front line workers putting themselves and their families in danger to help control this pandemic," Senator Robert Rodriguez, a Democrat from Denver, said in a statement. "I'm proud to support the efforts of Denver Health Workers United as they advocate for a better hospital for the employees and ultimately for the community."

Until 1997, Denver Health operated as an agency of the City of Denver, where non-uniformed employees are protected under the city’s Career Service Authority. Because Denver Health is a quasi-public entity established by the State of Colorado, its employees do not currently have a "legal framework" through which they can collectively bargain, Walker says. But the union is opting for a different approach than the one taken in an unsuccessful organizing effort in 2003.

"They want to advocate now for changes in the workplace, regardless of whether there's a collective-bargaining agreement on the table," says Walker. "They think there are issues needing to be addressed by the administration, but there are also issues that are just going to have to be resolved as part of state policy-making. And they want to be a public advocacy force, to speak out for more investment in the institution and smarter investment in the institution."

Members of DHWU are currently organizing a petition drive to demand more protective equipment and other safety measures, and hope to recruit enough members to go fully public in the coming weeks. In the meantime, they're telling hospital management to listen to their concerns and not take any retaliatory action.

"We urge Denver Health administration to take no action in retribution of our efforts, and consider any money spent on attacking or breaking our union effort as money not spent on patient care, protection, and the well-being of the employees of this hospital," workers wrote in their letter to Wittenstein. "We love Denver Health. And we need an independent employee organization with the power to address these and future concerns to strengthen the care we provide, and improve the conditions under which we work."