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Colorado bill seeks to give 38K county workers collective bargaining rights

Denver's Capitol and skyscrapers. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
By Nick Voutsinos ·

Nearly 38,000 county workers across Colorado could soon gain the right for a voice on the job.

Under legislation Colorado Senate President Steve Fenberg and Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno introduced Monday, nearly 38,000 essential workers employed by Colorado’s county governments would gain collective bargaining rights – the same rights Colorado state workers already enjoy.

The bill also has the strong support of Colorado House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, an ally of labor unions.

SB22-230 would apply to child welfare staff, transportation workers, water treatment employees, emergency service workers, electoral workers, and all essential county personnel who keep Colorado’s communities running.

With collective bargaining rights, county workers will be able to join together and gain a seat at the table with management, where they can work with the decision-makers of their respective departments to solve key workplace issues – whether those are related to workplace safety, the quality of public services, or the current staffing crisis plaguing many county governments.

Without these rights, public service workers can be punished, or even fired, if they come together to voice their concerns.

“My co-workers and I working on the front lines know better than anyone else what’s needed to save our department,” said Josette Jaramillo, a child welfare worker for Pueblo County, in an op-ed for Colorado Politics. “But as things currently stand, county workers in Colorado have no ability to work with management on solutions.”

Right now, only four of Colorado’s 64 county governments recognize workers’ collective bargaining rights. Adams County is one of those four. In 2019, human services workers there voted overwhelmingly to form a union. Last year, these essential staffers, who are members of AFSCME Council 18, won their first contract. The historic agreement includes yearly raises for human service workers, just cause disciplinary procedures, a neutral grievance procedure, bilingual pay stipends and salary increases, and requires the creation of labor management committees to address worker concerns.

“We won our union and now we’re fulfilling our promise of improving working conditions for Adams County employees and their families,” said Heather Burke, an Adams County bargaining team member and social case worker.

Adams County provides a case study on the benefits collective bargaining can bring to public service workers. Prior to having a seat at the table, the Adams County Department of Human Services was hemorrhaging staff, as poor working conditions and subpar pay drove many workers out the door. Now, Adams County workers have what they need to continue to do the jobs they love with dignity – and with a seat at the table, they are optimistic that they can overcome future challenges.

Most county workers in Colorado list the staffing crisis as one of the key reasons they need a seat at the table. COVID-19 hit all county departments hard, with workers getting sick and many others leaving for jobs with lesser risk of exposure. Now, counties are dealing with historically low staffing levels, which are threatening the quality and consistency of the public services Colorado communities rely on. The turnover among public employees also costs taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

If county workers have the ability to negotiate on key issues like workplace safety and pay, they could work with management to develop solutions to the staffing crisis. Studies confirm this, showing that workplaces with collective bargaining experience far less turnover than those without.

“Listening is how crucial change starts to happen,” said Jaramillo. “When you understand what it’s like to work on the front lines, you understand how you can make these jobs more attractive and what it takes to keep people in these positions. So, I ask our legislators: listen to the workers who keep Colorado running. Save our public services. Give us a seat at the table.”

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