Fight to Protect Public Workers Resumes in Legislature

The bill that would give Colorado state workers the right to collective bargaining will be heard in the State Senate be after Colorado lawmakers return from their Memorial Day vacations. The bill is supported by Governor Jared Polis and Colorado WINS, a union representing over 28,000 state employees in Colorado. It was expected to pass the State Senate, in part thanks to the Democratic majority. However, the COVID-19 crisis has put the bill in jeopardy at a time when public employee pensions were already threatened.

The Colorado Partnership for Quality Jobs and Services Act (HB 1153) would grant state employees the freedom to collectively bargain for wages and benefits. Due to the nature of their work, employees covered would not have the right to go on strike if wage negotiations reached a stalemate. After passing the House in February unamended , the bill passed two committees in the Senate mid-March when many states began issuing stay-at-home orders.

The state’s $3 Billion shortfall means state employees may face layoffs and furloughs when the fiscal year begins on July 1st, just another reason they need the ability to negotiate over issues impacting them.

State employees are considered essential and did not stop working. While some are telecommuting, many report to work in-person to residential 24/7 facilities like prisons, hospitals, and homes for the developmentally disabled. These facilities are also most at risk for rapid transfer of the virus because of close quarters between residents. For others, like Colorado’s Department of Labor workers, this time has been grueling with the increase in unemployment claims.

According to the Denver Post, over 550,000 people have filed unemployment benefit claims since the COVID-19 outbreak. State workers at the Department of Labor have struggled to meet the increased demand with their little resources, as explained in an op-ed for the Pueblo Chieftan by HB 1153 authors and Pueblo State Representatives Rep. Daneya Esgar and Sen. Leroy Garcia, both Democrats.

According to the editorial, public workers are working through a crisis with subpar resources. “Years of budget cuts have thinned staff, depleted critical equipment, and created unsafe working conditions,” Garcia and Esgar writes.

This sentiment was echoed by Colorado State Senator Brittany Pettersen (D-22 and Vice Chair of the Health and Human Services Committee) and House Representative Alec Garnett (D-2). In an editorial for Colorado Politics, the representatives say allowing public employees to negotiate for their working conditions will not only alleviate the strain on workers but will give them a voice in handling the fallout from the pandemic.

“This pandemic has made it clearer than ever that state employees have the best interests of Coloradans at heart, no matter where they work. Their expertise and ingenuity should help guide discussions on how we recover from the crisis and how we plan to be ready for future emergencies.”