Colorado government workers are underpaid compared to the private sector, state data show. And those relative low wages and thousands of unfilled positions leave the state ill-equipped to meet all many demands, they allege.
The state’s ability to compete for new hires and fill empty slots impacts the function of its basic services — from prisons to housing-assistance helplines, mental health facilities to public universities.
The average base salary for a state worker is now 6.5% lower than the prevailing market, according to a Department of Personnel and Administration report released Wednesday. That means someone qualified for a $70,000 state job could fetch close to $5,000 more in the private sector.
But the state’s union reports that more than a fifth of government workers here earn less than $45,000, and more than 10% of jobs are consistently unfilled, peaking at 20% in 2018.
“The reason we’re having a problem attracting and keeping people is the low wages,” said Skip Miller, who works in IT for the state and is the president of the state worker union, Colorado WINS. “A lot of these jobs are tough — (transportation), the Department of Corrections, health workers, hospitals. These are jobs that require dedicated people.
“You have to pay them and if not they will go someplace else. And that’s what’s happening.”
State officials counter that the playing field is more level than the salary disparity suggests, because government workers receive valuable benefits. That includes a pension contribution from the Public Employees’ Retirement Association (PERA) that averages 18% of pay — slightly better than the private sector.
Even with benefits included, though, the state reports a nearly 3% average gap in overall compensation. That’s an improvement from this time last year, when the state reported a gap above 16%.
The state report and the union both note that Colorado’s ability to close the gap is helped by a 3% raise approved by the legislature this year. The state also now contracts with a different consultant to tally its compensation figures, and state Department of Personnel and Administration Director Kara Veitch is more positive this year in her assessment of the numbers.
“The value of the State’s total compensation package is competitive with the market,” she wrote in a letter to Gov. Jared Polis and state Sen. Dominick Moreno, who chairs the legislative Joint Budget Committee. But she added that the state needs to research and monitor individual job classes that aren’t competitive.
In a statement, Veitch told The Denver Post that Colorado is “constantly working to become an Employer of Choice.”
“We do everything we can to offer competitive pay and benefits, and we listen to employees through channels such as listening sessions and regular engagement surveys. We are working to implement many of the ideas employees shared, including increased training opportunities, flexible work arrangements, and a focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion.
“Like all other organizations throughout Colorado, the state has to deal with the challenges of a competitive labor market and managing to its budget,” she added.
“Barely scraping by”
The union doesn’t buy that the compensation gap is at 3%, saying private-sector wages have increased along with those for government workers. Miller called this week’s state report “curious” and out of sync with workers’ lived experiences.
State workers from various departments say they’re still having difficulty keeping up with bills. At a rally in Denver last Friday, workers spoke of sleeping in cars, moving in with family and waiting in food lines.
These personal struggles bleed into workplace problems, they said.
“Oftentimes we’re working on a critical staffing level,” juvenile correctional officer Tanesha McQueen said, adding that it’s common for there to be one mental health professional on staff for dozens of children.
Parker Cagley-Smith, who works at the Colorado State University bookstore, said staff is “barely scraping by.”
“If you take that as a small sample, at the bookstore, it doesn’t seem so bad,” Cagley-Smith added, “but you compound that thousands of times across the state … and there are shortfalls. There won’t be better services. Your buses won’t come on time. At the university you’ll deal with delays, shortages.”
This week, two liberal organizations, In the Public Trust and the Colorado Fiscal Institute, released a report arguing that the state’s underinvestment in its workforce — and thus in its services — has created failure “to meet critical challenges,” from caring for older people and those with disabilities to being prepared for the pandemic.
In that report, Stephanie Maney, an administrative assistant in the Division of Housing within the Department of Local Affairs, said she felt unable to help people who called seeking housing assistance.
“The calls were urgent. People needed answers but I did not have information that would help them,” she said. “I answered calls from very desperate people — people who were served evictions, had no job, who were in every kind of terrifying situation you can imagine. I talked to people who were threatened or unhoused, but they had no shelter. I did not have the resources to answer them, or even transfer them to the right person.”
State workers have gained the ability, however, to bargain with the state over wages and benefits with a 2020 law. The first negotiated contract is expected to be finalized soon.
The union plans to seek another raise in the 2022 legislative session, Miller said, especially with the infusion of federal government relief money.
Last year’s raise was appreciated but far from adequate, he argued.
“If you’re crawling through the desert and you get a cup of water, you’re not going to turn it down,” Miller said. “But it’s not a gallon.”