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To recover from the pandemic, Colorado must invest directly in the workers who are getting us through it

To recover from the pandemic, Colorado must invest directly in the workers who are getting us through it.

Author: Angelika Stedman, Registered Nurse

For nearly a year, Coloradans have faced unprecedented threats to the health of our communities. Throughout it all, essential workers have gotten us through the worst of the pandemic and are keeping our communities and economy going. Many of those frontline workers are Colorado’s state employees, who work tirelessly to fulfill our commitment to the health of everyone in our community. Although you may not see the behind the scenes work state employees perform daily, we provide critical services keeping people in every one of Colorado’s 64 counties fed, clean, safe, and healthy.

Unfortunately, chronic understaffing, low pay, and eroding benefits have caused many experienced and talented state employees to leave the jobs they love and seek out other job opportunities to provide for their families. In fact, state employees are paid, on average, 16.4% less than employees in similar sectors, a gap that has been steadily growing each year, even in times of economic prosperity.

This trend has been made even worse by the demands the pandemic has placed on the people taking care of Coloradans. I work as a psychiatric registered nurse at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo (CMHIP). For years, CMHIP has struggled to attract and retain talented and qualified employees, which hurts the very patients we work to serve (the turnover rate in Colorado’s Dept. of Human Services was 23.1% in FY 17/18, 28.3% in FY 18/19, and 23.4% in 19/20, one of the highest in the entire state). CMHIP is one of two inpatient, behavioral health service hospitals operated by the state that aid individuals with mental health screenings, substance abuse issues, and other mental health issues.

Low pay and increased workloads mean  state employees must work overtime or double shifts to try to provide the services Coloradans need. The demanding nature of our work compounds the problem, leading to staff exhaustion and compromising the safety of our fellow employees and our clients. When dedicated employees are incentivized to look for employment elsewhere, Colorado’s vulnerable populations are left in even more precarious conditions. CMHIP isn’t alone. Chronic low staffing plagues state employees across departments, with 1 in 5 state positions vacant. We’re just one example of how our community is impacted by lack of investment in public services.

But state employees like me are hoping the coronavirus pandemic has taught us one thing: to recover from this global emergency we must invest in the essential workers who got us through it. Last year, state employees won our right to collectively bargain a contract with the state. This year, we will use our new opportunity to reimagine how we drive investment into jobs and essential services that serve Colorado communities. That means making sure frontline workers have a voice on the job when it comes to changing how public services are funded and delivered. In our contract negotiations, we will be advocating for filling the vacancies which lead to unsafe staffing levels, raising wages to ensure people working for the state can support their families and that Colorado can retain employees, and improving benefits like leave and insurance options.

But while we negotiate a contract for a better future, we need immediate federal investment in public services. The American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief proposal, includes $350 billion dollars earmarked for state and local governments. These funds could help decrease the pressure state employees have been feeling since the coronavirus pandemic and allow for a much-needed breath of relief, but only if we ensure that money is invested in the working people of Colorado who have carried us through the pandemic.

I hope Colorado legislators and other elected leaders will join us in calling on Senators Bennet and Hickenlooper to vote to send federal aid back home. I also hope our legislators invest that money in Colorado’s working people, including state employees who have been on the frontlines of the response. Our work has kept Colorado from plunging deeper into a crisis and lawmakers will have a chance this legislative session to acknowledge that by ensuring public services are prioritized for funding.

The ability to work hands-on with patients at CMHIP is one of the joys of being a state employee, and seeing patients enter back into society after rehabilitation is one of the most rewarding parts of my career. However, seeing my fellow coworkers struggle because of low pay, depleted morale, or fearing for their physical safety is heartbreaking. We can and we must do better by the people who are answering the call to this crisis and the people who depend on the critical work we do. Right now, we need federal aid to shore up public services and beat back this pandemic. But in the long-run, Colorado’s elected leaders must commit to investing in essential services to make them sustainable and be better prepared for future crises.

Angelika Stedman is a Registered Nurse who has worked at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo (CMHIP) for three years. She is a member of Colorado WINS, the union representing state employees, and was elected to serve on the bargaining committee negotiating for a new contract for state employees.