CEO Robin Wittenstein Must Address Denver Health’s Own Systemic Racism Problem Before “Admitting Failure” on Racial Equality

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We must cultivate our own garden.

Voltaire, Candide (1759)

Earlier this week, the Colorado Sun published an Op-Ed written by Denver Health CEO Robin Wittenstein entitled,

It’s time to admit failure on equality. Let’s use that as our starting point.

CEO Wittenstein then showcased her ostensible commitment to racial equality and equal employment opportunity (EEO) by announcing the formation of a new CEO group called “Colorado Inclusive Economy“, which is allegedly “committed to doing the work personally and through our organizations to provide opportunities to those who have been without for too long.” 

Bullsh*t.

Since October 2019, Denver Health has defended a systemic pattern and practice race discrimination lawsuit in U.S. District Court (Colorado) brought by its former Employee Relations Investigator, Carol Nichols, Nichols et al. v. Denver Health and Hospital Authority, 1:19-cv-02818.

Carol Nichols, former Employee Relations Investigator at Denver Health, is now pursuing a systemic race and disability discrimination matter in U.S. District Court-Colorado.

Ms. Nichols, a 35-year equal employment opportunity (EEO) investigator, alleges that Denver Health maintains a pattern and practice of subjective, racist decision-making in disciplinary and termination decisions that cause “astronomical” adverse impact against African American employees. Ms. Nichols’s lawsuit is based not only on testimony from former officials in Denver Health’s HR department, but also detailed statistical analyses from Biddle Consulting Group in Folsom, California, leading experts in adverse impact testing and affirmative action compliance.

In June 2020, Ms. Nichols gave Denver Health’s attorneys Biddle’s analysis of disciplinary and/or termination outcomes under Denver Health’s Accountability-Based Performance (ABP) policy and practices. In 2019, Denver Health changed its ABP process from a progressive disciplinary ladder aimed at employee self-correction to a subjective system vesting complete discretion in HR leaders and line managers. Using well-accepted federal EEO statistical modeling, Biddle’s adverse impact analysis revealed that this subjective process yielded worsening severity bias against African Americans with corresponding leniency bias against Caucasian/White ones, effectively echoing the Black Lives Matter studies of severity and leniency bias by police and by courts: mistakes and/or missteps by African Americans are somehow allegedly more “egregious” and deserving of more severe, harsher treatment.

In response, Denver Health hired its own statistical expert who admitted that he was unfamiliar with 30 years of federal adverse impact statistical modeling and so, he constructed his own novel model. Despite his non-conforming approach, Denver Health’s own expert STILL found statistically significant adverse impact by race in some of Denver Health’s most populated job categories. Of course, like Denver Health, its expert minimized this monumental finding, as though Title VII tolerates “just a little” race discrimination. On the contrary, Title VII and pattern and practice litigation like Carol Nichols’s case exist to remove these system-wide racial barriers to equal employment opportunity.

If an employer’s undisciplined system of subjective decision-making has precisely the same effects as a system pervaded by impermissible intentional discrimination, it is difficult to see why Title VII’s proscription against discriminatory actions should not apply.

Watson v. fort worth bank & trust, 487 U.S. 977, 990-91 (1988).

In November 2020, Denver Health Workers United (DHWU), through national advocacy group Towards Justice, filed a whistleblowing lawsuit alleging systematic retaliation against doctors and workers who have complained about systemic racism at Denver Health. The fight for racial justice at Denver Health lies at the heart of DHWU’s organizing campaign.

We shared Biddle’s statistical findings, as well as Denver Health’s expert rebuttal reports, with DHWU last year. On an individual basis, racist disparate treatment can be difficult to prove. It comes into sharp focus, however, in aggregate statistical analyses of decisional outcomes: Denver Health has consistently treated mistakes by African American employees far more severely, as “egregious” and worthy of summary termination, while extending Caucasian/White ones the benefit of the doubt–e.g., numerous second chances, less severe discipline, if any at all. Again, that kind of disparate treatment is exactly what Title VII was intended to prevent and correct.

Racist disparate treatment comes into sharp focus in aggregate statistical analyses of decisional outcomes.

DHWU has cited these findings and raised employee concerns of racial injustice and disparate treatment to Denver Health’s C-Suite, its Board of Directors, Denver Mayor Hancock’s office, and the Denver City Council. What does it take to effectuate change at Denver Health, for the benefit of the 7,500 workers serving our community there today? What does it take for our local leaders to hear the voices of Denver Health’s workforce, as well as those of civil rights attorneys, union leaders, local activists and organizers, etc. striving to make Denver Health the kind of employer its workforce and our community deserve?

But also ask yourself: does it make sense that CEO Wittenstein would be unaware of active systemic discrimination litigation alleging astronomical statistically significant racial bias in disciplinary and termination decisions pending in U.S. District Court today? If so, is she similarly uninformed about other matters that directly impact Denver Health’s bottom line, treatment of employees, and community reputation?

More likely than not, CEO Wittenstein knows about the struggle of Denver Health’s own workforce to achieve racial equity at work, but chooses to throw up her hands in failure, ruminate with other CEO’s, and publish self-congratulatory Op-Ed’s rather than strive to fix her own workplace. After all, most compliance-conscious employers mete out discipline CONSISTENTLY in a progressive process aimed at employee self-correction to avoid actual or the appearance of disparate treatment. Not Denver Health.

Unfortunately, CEO Wittenstein and Denver Health’s PR machine have an established history of taking diametrically divergent positions in policies and press releases versus in court where employee rights are at stake.

For example, where was CEO Wittenstein when Denver Health’s General Counsel and outside litigators argued that the Colorado Antidiscrimination Act (CADA)–the only law outlawing discrimination against Colorado’s LGBTQ+ workers until June 2020–stopped protecting its LGBTQ+ workforce in Houchin v. Denver Health? For several years, Denver Health has held itself out as a particularly LGBTQ+-friendly employer, while claiming in court absolute governmental immunity from the only law protecting LGBTQ+ employees.

Denver Health attorney Brent Johnson (top center) argues on October 13, 2020 before the Colorado Supreme Court that because of governmental immunity, Colorado’s antidiscrimination act stopped protecting Denver Health’s workers on January 1, 2015.

On December 21, 2020, the Colorado Supreme Court rejected Denver Health’s argument that it enjoys absolute governmental immunity from CADA discrimination claims and remanded the case back to Denver District Court. We estimate that Denver Health has spent $1.2 million in non-recoverable legal fees to argue that its LGBTQ+ employees enjoyed no legal protection against discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

How can CEO Wittenstein plead ignorance? Legitimately, she cannot.

“We must cultivate our own garden,” Voltaire wrote in 1759. The FIX must begin in your own garden, Ms. Wittenstein, starting with Denver Health’s own policies, practices, and Employee Relations leaders which have collectively created barriers to racial equality at Denver Health. Perhaps, Ms. Wittenstein, you could take a greater interest in the legal positions that Denver Health’s outside counsel assert in court, positions that directly conflict with Denver Health’s published policies, press releases, and public pronouncements like your recent Op-Ed. Respectfully, Ms. Wittenstein, until you begin to address the systemic discrimination against Denver Health’s own employees, participation in a group like “Colorado Inclusive Economy” is just more ineffective window-dressing. If you truly care about racial equality, Ms. Wittenstein, start in your own garden.

Merrily Archer, Esq., M.S.W.