The pandemic has made it clear to many Colorado residents what state employees already know: state services and infrastructure are underfunded, under-resourced and understaffed.
That’s why the recent negotiation of the first contract between state employees and the state was such a significant victory for state employees and Colorado families who depend on public services, from snow removal to healthcare. patients, through jobs like mine.
We are grateful to Governor Jared Polis for supporting these investments in the budget proposal he released in November. Investing in our state workers benefits Colorans in every corner of our state, and we are thrilled that the Governor has reaffirmed his commitment to the public services that keep our communities running.
These additional and critical investments must now be supported by Colorado state legislators in the legislative session budget. We hope lawmakers understand what state workers like me go through every day and why these investments are so important.
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I work as an Environmental Protection Specialist for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources for three West Slope counties. I inspect active oil and gas production facilities to ensure they are safe for the employees who work there and the communities nearby. My colleagues and I are the eyes and ears of the Coloradans in identifying and minimizing the threats to the air, water and land on which we all depend.
If we find a problem, we ask the operating companies to correct the potential environmental problems. Most importantly, we ensure that when a leak is discovered, it is cleaned up appropriately. Finally, when oil and gas facilities close, we work with companies to ensure that the land is restored enough to support vegetation again.
I am passionate about my job and my work to protect Colorado for future generations. Our work is essential to ensure the proper functioning of production facilities and to minimize potential impacts on the environment. Our efforts to clean up spills and prevent them from happening in the first place protect our drinking water, soil and the great outdoors.
Unfortunately, like many other state departments, our agency is understaffed and underfunded, making it difficult to fulfill our protective mission. We are undertaking a significant effort to ensure that historical threats to the environment are addressed, while continuing the demanding work of regulating the industry’s ongoing operations.
Personally, this has resulted in about a threefold increase in my office workload, which means I often don’t have time to meet my old inspection schedule. State employees like me are working harder than ever to provide quality services in response to this increased workload – but there are only so many hours in the day.
This lack of investment in our public agencies creates real public safety issues and has been happening for decades. I am not alone in this dilemma. State employees in Colorado face a dangerous understaffing caused by low wages and decades of underfunding. In 2018, nearly 20% of state jobs were vacant, and we are paid about 16% less than our peers in other workplaces.
In our contract with the State, we were able to negotiate significant investments that will improve the quality of public services for all of us. This included better wages, which will help us reduce the nearly 15% annual turnover rate of state employees who leave for jobs that make it easier to support their families. Retaining and attracting new state employees will bring us closer to appropriate staffing levels so that we can perform essential functions such as road and bridge safety, air and water quality protection and the care of relatives of the Coloradans.
As I recently told my state senator, I find my job fulfilling and I am doing my part to restore our environment. But stagnating wages and growing workloads are starting to take their toll. For the first time in more than six years, I am worried about the work I love because the workload does not seem sustainable to me.
But now, if state lawmakers support the terms of our new contract, I have reason to believe that I will have the resources to do the work that the people of our state need and deserve.
We hope our elected leaders will continue to invest in state services to address chronic underfunding and understaffing. If we work together, we can ensure that all Colorado families and their communities can thrive.
Steven Arauza lives in Rifle.
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