Denver Health and Hospital Authority will be clarifying part of its internal policy Thursday after City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca expressed concerns regarding employees' ability to speak to elected officials or the media.
In a memo, Denver Health executives told employees Wednesday that they could not speak to media or elected officials unless given permission, a practice CdeBaca called “wildly unethical and inappropriate” in an email Thursday morning to Jackie Zheleznyak, Denver Health’s director of government relations.
Denver Health employees recently began unionizing after it became public that hospital executives received bonuses — some upwards of $200,000 — one week after hospital staff were asked to take pay cuts. During a City Council meeting earlier this month, CdeBaca said she had received multiple calls from Denver Health workers “who felt like their safety and health have been jeopardized and they haven’t had an outlet” to speak up.
"While it may have made sense" to tell Denver Health employees that they aren't allowed to represent the organization without permission, CdeBaca wrote to Zheleznyak, “it is a serious problem when an employer aims to stifle an employee's constitutional right to speak to anyone as a representative of themselves and their own experiences.”
Considering Denver Health receives government funding and has contractual obligations with government entities, there “should never be a concern about public officials speaking to employees,” she wrote. “Each employee separate from DH is a free citizen represented as an individual by several elected officials with whom they have a right and duty to engage with for a myriad of reasons.”
Roughly two hours later, Zheleznyak wrote back to CdeBaca and the other 12 council members, who CdeBaca had included in her email.
“We thank Councilwoman CdeBaca for her email and the concerns she has raised,” Zheleznyak wrote back about 12:15 p.m. Thursday. “Denver Health absolutely supports our employees’ right to express their personal opinions and to speak to the media and elected officials regarding their opinions. At no time would Denver Health seek to interfere with an employee’s right to speak with the media or elected officials.
“The message Denver Health sent regarding speaking to the media and elected officials lacked clarity that it related only to an individual speaking on behalf of Denver Health and we regret that fact,” she said. “If speaking on behalf of Denver Health, employees must coordinate with our Public Relations Department and our Government Relations Team to help ensure the consistency of our messaging.”
Zheleznyak said Denver Health would be clarifying that message to employees Thursday “to ensure employees understand that we are not interfering with their individual rights,” and also offered to provide council members with copies of that communication.
Councilman Chris Hinds, who in April called the Denver Health hospital bonuses “disturbing,” also chimed in on the email, echoing CdeBaca’s concerns and thanking Zheleznyak for addressing the problem.
“I believe speech is protected — including political discourse — and I firmly believe and encourage my constituents to have a dialogue with me without fear of retribution by anyone, including their employer,” he wrote. “Thank you for clarifying with your employees that their ability to communicate their own personal beliefs and opinions is separate from their authority to speak on behalf of their employer.”