Fired CPR host claims the station discriminated against him

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Former Colorado Public Radio host and reporter Vic Vela, who rose to prominence in recent years through his podcast about addiction, recovery and mental health, filed complaints Tuesday with state and federal disability authorities alleging he was fired in January because he asked for accommodations to help maintain his sobriety.

Vela, who has candidly discussed his recovery from a crack cocaine addiction and his struggles with HIV, alleges in joint U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Colorado Civil Rights Division complaints that the radio station violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and a Colorado anti-discrimination law by failing to accommodate his disability needs.

Vela also claims CPR’s leaders accused him of using his recovery as a tool of manipulation.

“A big reason why we’re here talking today is because I had hoped that CPR would work in good faith with my lawyers to try and resolve this,” Vela, who worked at CPR for nine years and is known for his “Back From Broken” podcast, told The Colorado Sun in an interview on Tuesday. “But not only on the day when they fired me over the phone did they say they would deny me unemployment, (but) now they’re actively fighting me on unemployment.”

CPR, in a blunt statement Tuesday, said that “any allegations associated with discrimination by CPR towards this individual are false” and suggested that Vela had been abusive or hostile to coworkers.

“While we typically do not comment on personnel decisions, due to the public conversation about this issue, and in an effort to increase transparency about management decisions, we feel it is important to make this statement,” the statement said. 

The station said that “it does not tolerate harassment or hostile, abusive or discriminatory behaviors of any kind from any employee — regardless of their power, influence or position.”

Vela’s complaint doesn’t seek a specific remedy, but his attorney Iris Halpern, of the prominent Denver civil rights firm Rathod Mohamedbhai, said “we would be asking for Vic to be made whole.” Halpern didn’t elaborate.

“But I think for Vic the most important thing is also ensuring that this type of discrimination doesn’t happen again,” she said, also alleging that CPR retaliated against Vela when he asked for help.

Former Colorado Public Radio host and reporter Vic Vela. (Provided photo)

Vela, who worked as CPR’s weekend host, said the accommodations he asked for, but was not provided, included:

  • Moving production of the “Back From Broken” podcast into the newsroom from CPR’s audio innovations unit because he was clashing with a manager whom he felt was hostile toward addiction recovery
  • Resources to cope with a stressful work environment — including the station’s financial struggles — from the head of human resources, who promised to provide that assistance. “I was often telling CPR leadership that the issues going on with the morale — that it was affecting my mental health, it was affecting my ongoing recovery,” Vela said. “If you know anything about addiction, the one thing that you learn in recovery is you have to recognize triggers.”
  • Asking a manager to be present for difficult workplace conversations that could be triggering

Halpern said the Americans with Disabilities Act obligates employers — not employees — to develop accommodations for workers who fall under its protections and ask for assistance.

Vela said he resigned in the spring of 2023 after receiving a smaller annual raise than he had previously because CPR alleged he had conflicts with other employees. However, he quickly rescinded his resignation after receiving reassurances from the head of human resources about the help he would receive. He says she never followed through.

Vela wrote in his EEOC/CCRD complaint that in one meeting with CPR’s leaders, he complained “about being picked on because of my history of addiction. I noted that such disparate treatment could cause ‘triggers,’ which in my case, might ‘send me back to the crack house.’” He wrote that senior staff “took my words out of context and threw them back at me, accusing me of ‘using my addiction to manipulate us.’”

Vela said he was told he was fired for insubordination.

“It was clear to me that they were looking for a reason to get rid of me,” he said in the interview Tuesday. “I had conflicts with the upper leadership, which, I mean, well, of course, in the sense that wasn’t being listened to. When I have a senior vice president mocking my addiction and recovery process, I’m going to stand up for myself and I’m going to speak out. But it was never anything that rose to the level of being inappropriate.”

Vela’s seven-page complaint, however, does list one “minor incident with a new employee who felt I had been disrespectful to him in one of my communications on an internal messaging board” that resulted in an HR complaint in early 2023. But the document said “nothing came of the complaint” and Vela chalked the situation up to a misunderstanding.

It may take a year or more before the EEOC and Colorado Civil Rights Division investigates the case and decides whether to pursue Vela’s claims. Halpern said Vela can’t file a lawsuit against CPR until his complaints have been with the agencies for at least six months.

The claim was filed a few days after CPR announced it was laying off 15 people in its audio and podcast production departments because of what CPR President and CEO Stewart Vanderwilt called “changing economic realities.” 

The layoffs included members of the department that produced “Back From Broken.”

Vela said he would love to stay in journalism but because most media organizations are struggling economically, the options are limited. “I do know that I’m going to continue talking about recovery,” he said. 

Vela said he takes no joy in talking about his issues at CPR, “because it was my family — and it’s like I was kicked out of a family.”

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