The Check Is in the Mail!

Licensed practical nurse Velma Gilbert says that on June 20, when she began working for Caring Hands, a home-health-care company that provides services for the Cherry Oaks Retirement Community in metro Denver, she was promised a $1,500 signing bonus.

She never saw the bonus. During the next six weeks, Gilbert says, she received only one paycheck, for $56. She quit on August 4 and filed a complaint with the state's Division of Labor. Caring Hands responded by filing a complaint against Gilbert with the Colorado Board of Nursing, and Brenda Toliver-Locke, director of the Denver Anti-Discrimination Office, says her agency is investigating the company's filing as a case of possible retaliation against the nurse.

Gilbert isn't the only one who says she's been stiffed by Caring Hands. Thirty-nine other people have filed wage complaints against the company; of those, 26 were filed after June. Mary Blue, the director of the state Division of Labor, says the number of complaints is not normal. "Absolutely not," says Blue. "That's way too many."

Every complaint involves alleged nonpayment of wages. The highest wage claimed owed is $6,996; the lowest, $600. Most figures fall between $1,000 and $3,000. Gilbert says she is owed about $3,200.

"We've been working with the employer," says Blue. "The employer has been paying some of the complaints."

In fact, says Blue, the company has paid in nineteen of the cases so far. But Blue adds that that figure is merely what the company has reported to the state. "Some payments are more than what employees put on the claim, some are less, some are right on," says Blue. Caring Hands officials, she says, claim they are having trouble obtaining reimbursements from Medicare and say that is why their employees are going unpaid.

The Division of Labor does not have enforcement authority, but it can penalize companies up to $50 per employee per day from the date wages were due. That money goes to the state's general fund. "It's something I'm considering in this case," says Blue.

Caring Hands' attorney, James Kimel, tells Westword that he was not aware of the number of complaints filed against the company. He declines to comment on the Gilbert case.

Most of Gilbert's frustration is directed toward Caring Hands director Janice Boa, who also declines comment.

Gilbert, 37, says that when she was interviewing for the job--which required her to pay house calls and do shifts at Cherry Oaks--company officials sold her on what she says was their "Christian ethic" of health care. She went to work for Caring Hands part-time while continuing to hold another job, so at first she wasn't overly concerned about not getting paid. She says she was placated by excuses such as problems with her employee ID number, computer malfunctions and lost checks. "In the beginning I believed them," she says. "When you come in as a new employee, you do have problems."

But when she left her other job in mid-July, money started to matter. On July 31, she says, she received her first paycheck, but it was for only $56, and she demanded that she be paid the rest of her earnings to date. At one point, she says, some of her co-workers collected money and offered her $100, but she turned it down. Director Boa then promised her that a check would be in her hands the following Monday, August 3. When she wasn't paid, Gilbert quit the next day.

She quickly started to spread the word, filing a complaint with Blue's office that day and getting in touch with the Denver Anti-Discrimination Office.

Gilbert went to the anti-discrimination office because she is African-American. Although she says she doesn't think her situation initially had racial overtones, she now feels that "that's what it evolved into. Because I'm the African-American who defied [Boa], I think it became 'I'm gonna do whatever I can to get back at her.'"

Toliver-Locke says she spoke with Boa on August 6, a few days after Gilbert quit. She says the Caring Hands director promised to pay Gilbert the next day. It didn't happen. And Toliver-Locke says Boa told her that she was prepared to hire a lawyer to "fight" the nurse.

Caring Hands recently filed a complaint against Gilbert with the Colorado State Board of Nursing for alleged client abandonment. Toliver-Locke says Boa believed that Gilbert had promised to continue looking after patients when she quit, though Gilbert denies this. The complaint by Caring Hands is serious, says Gilbert, noting that "when you abandon your client, you lose your license."

The bitterness has increased on both sides. Gilbert says she was miffed when she saw the company's recent help-wanted advertisements.

"They can't afford to pay me," says Gilbert, "but they can afford to hire a lawyer and pay for new advertisements?

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T.R. Witcher