AURORA, Colo. — A former employee with the Rocky Mountain V.A. Medical Center in Aurora has settled for $45,000 following a hostile work environment complaint filed nearly two years ago, in which the man alleged a VA chief told him he "looked like a monkey."
Nurses at the Rocky Mountain Regional V.A. Medical Center have been protesting staffing shortages and a rise in workplace violence recently, and their complaints sounded all too familiar to Garland Dotson.
"Nothing has changed," said Dotson, a former occupational safety specialist at the VA hospital, and a whistleblower, who first told his story two years ago before he left his position.
He reported a hostile work environment, including an incident when a VA section chief made a "monkey-like motion" with her arms and told him, "You look like a monkey."
Documents show a VA investigation found the harassment claim was substantiated, but the section chief still has her job.
"They plaster all over the building about no harassment, no hostile work environment, but they facilitate it and do nothing about it," said Dotson.
Since then, current and former VA employees have reached out to Contact Denver7, reporting a toxic work environment.
"I was there six months before I started looking for another job. It was that bad," said Ron Mitcham, a former VA employee who left shortly before Dotson in 2021. "And I'm a 22-year veteran of the army. So, I've seen my fair share of bad leadership and that is the worst."
Dotson took his complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and records show the VA settled for $45,000.
"To me, it sends a message that unfortunately for the VA, you have a problem. It needs to be addressed," said Dotson, who said Mitcham hired him for a better job and he used the settlement money to finance another degree. "I'm much happier than I was two years ago, but I think about the people who work there every single day."
In a statement to Contact Denver7, Terri Clinton, spokesperson for the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System, wrote: "There is no place for discrimination of any kind at VA, and we take all allegations of wrongdoing very seriously and investigate them thoroughly."
Clinton stated that in recent years, VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System (ECHCS) has taken key steps to ensure that the health care system is living up to its core values, including:
- VA ECHCS hired a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) program manager in July 2022. We host multiple D&I training sessions throughout the year, and all VA ECHCS supervisors, managers and service chiefs are required to complete workplace harassment, retaliation and whistleblower protection training.
- In 2022, VA ECHCS established a program comprised of well-being, employee engagement, education and diversity, equity and inclusion.
- Nationwide, VA recently stood up an Agency Equity Team, known as the IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and access) Council, which is responsible for helping VA eliminate any disparities and barriers to recruit, hire, develop, promote and retain employees, including those from historically underserved communities. The council reports directly to VA’s Deputy Secretary.
Clinton also pointed to the five-star rating the VA ECHCS received last month from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) quality ratings.
In the past year, VA ECHCS retained 88% of our employees, with 12% turnover. Their nurse retention rate is 90.5%.
Clinton stated: "We deeply value the feedback of VA employees, and we will continue to do everything in our power to support them. We will continue to collaborate with our employees to provide the best possible work experience, so they can deliver the best possible health care to the Veterans we serve.”
Dotson, however, said the nurse protests are an indication that more needs to be done, and he wanted to raise awareness about what he calls "ongoing safety and workplace concerns" for the people still there.
"We can't just sit idly by and let it happen," he said.
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