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Politics and Government

Colorado activated the National Guard to help with coronavirus. The lowest rank makes just $1.67 an hour.

The Colorado legislature approved a bill to increase pay, but Gov. Jared Polis has not yet signed the measure and it won’t take effect immediately

A U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter assigned to the Colorado Army National Guard flies over flooded areas in northern Colorado to assess flood damage Sept. 14, 2013. (Provided by U.S. Air National Guard)
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The minimum pay for the 50 Colorado National Guard members called to duty by Gov. Jared Polis in response to the new coronavirus outbreak is just $1.67 an hour.

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Colorado lawmakers gave final approval to legislation in early March to boost the paltry salary days before the state’s emergency declaration and the guard’s activation to address the pandemic prompted by COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“At the time we passed this bill, there was no emergency,” said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, the sponsor of the bill, which received unanimous support. “But now it’s all too real what our National Guard members face — it could be fire, it could be a flood, it could be a virus.”

But it won’t help the current National Guard members addressing COVID-19. The Democratic governor has not signed the bill and it won’t take effect until 90 days after the legislature adjourns — which is tentatively early August but could come much later because of the outbreak.

The Polis administration refused to respond to questions Tuesday from The Colorado Sun about the measure and whether it could act to fast-forward the pay hikes.

Right now, a guard member’s pay during an emergency declaration is determined by rank and years of service. The minimum is $20 a day, which amounts to $1.67 on a 12-hour shift. 

Under the legislation, the base pay rate would increase to $88.80 a day. For a typical 12-hour shift, it would amount to $7.40 an hour — still well below minimum wage.

“They are leaving their regular paid job and some jobs will not necessarily reimburse them for lost wages,” said Zenzinger, D-Arvada. “They are not exactly being compensated by their work while they are taking on these additional duties to protect the state of Colorado.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Bill Woods, the senior enlisted leader of the Colorado National Guard, told lawmakers in January that the current base salary is equivalent to what enlisted military forces made in 1984.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Often National Guard members work longer than a 12-hour shift, sometimes even 24 hours. In the case of the Spring Creek fire in 2018, the Colorado Division of Military and Veterans Affairs used 61 low-ranking guard members in the response, according to a legislative analysis. 

Master Sgt. Jessica MacDonald told lawmakers “the small increase will encourage (guard members) to raise their hand and support the mission with the benefit of pay that is offsetting to what their civilian jobs would pay them.”

She added: “Putting down the plow and picking up the rifle isn’t such a hard decision when the compensation is comparative.”

The Polis administration announced Tuesday that “about 50” Colorado National Guard personnel are working to address the outbreak across the state. It’s not clear how many are earning the minimum rate. The salaries are paid from the state emergency fund, and legislative analysts estimated the future salary hike would increase budget costs by a few thousand dollars.

A health worker walks across the parking lot outside the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s lab in Denver’s Lowry neighborhood. The lab set up a drive-through testing process so people did not have to leave their cars to be tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Photographed on March 11, 2020. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

To date, guard operations mostly have been limited to logistics and helping the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment manage drive-thru testing sites. They also aided San Miguel County in opening a testing operation in Telluride on Tuesday. 

Scott Bookman, incident commander for Colorado and head of the state public health lab, said the guard’s role is two-fold. “They provide great logistical support, and then they have medical providers who are capable of performing the swabbing,” he said. 

“They are a great partner in this,” he continued. “They are experts in logistics. They have a clinical care team.”


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