The pandemic made clear for many Coloradans what state employees already knew: state services and infrastructure are underfunded, under-resourced, and understaffed.

Steven Arauza

That’s why the recent negotiation of the first contract between state employees and the state was such an important win for both state workers and the Colorado families that depend on public services, from snow plowing, to patient care, to jobs like mine. 

We are grateful that Gov. Jared Polis supported these investments in the proposed budget he released in November. Investing in our state workers benefits Coloradans in every corner of our state, and we are pleased the governor reaffirmed his commitment to the public services that keep our communities running.

These additional, critical investments now need to be supported by Colorado’s state lawmakers in the budget in the legislative session. We hope legislators understand what state workers like myself are experiencing every day and why these investments are so important.

I work as an Environmental Protection Specialist for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources for three counties on the Western Slope. 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 for Coloradans to identify and minimize threats to the air, water, and land we all depend on.

If we find a problem, we direct the operating companies to rectify potential environmental issues. Most importantly, we make sure that when a leak is discovered, it’s cleaned up appropriately. Finally, when oil and gas facilities close, we work with the companies to ensure the land is restored sufficiently to sustain vegetation once again. 

I’m passionate about my job and my work to protect Colorado for future generations. Our work is essential to ensuring that production facilities are operated properly and to minimizing potential impacts to 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 departments across the state, our agency is understaffed and underfunded, making it difficult to carry out our protective mission. We are undertaking a significant effort to ensure that historical threats to the environment are addressed, while continuing in the demanding work of regulating ongoing industry operations. 

Personally, this has resulted in my office workload increasing approximately threefold, which means I often don’t have time to stick to my former inspection schedule. State employees like me are working harder than ever to provide quality services in response to this workload increase — but there are only so many hours in the day. 

This lack of investment in our public agencies creates real public safety issues and it’s been happening for decades. I am not alone in this quandary. State employees across Colorado are facing dangerous understaffing caused by low pay and decades of underfunding. In 2018 nearly 20% of state jobs were vacant and we are compensated about 16% less than our peers in other workplaces.  

In our contract with the state, we were able to negotiate important 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 have been leaving for jobs that make it easier to support their families. Retaining and attracting new state employees will get us closer to proper staffing levels so that we can carry out critical functions like road and bridge safety, protecting air and water quality, and caring for Coloradans’ loved ones.

As I told my state senator recently, I see my job as fulfilling and doing my part to restore our environment. But the stagnation in wages and the growing workload are beginning to take their toll. For the first time in over six years, I am concerned for the job I love because the workload doesn’t seem sustainable.

But now, if state lawmakers support provisions in our new contract, I have reason to believe that I’ll have the resources to do the work the people of our state need and deserve.

We are hopeful our elected leaders will continue to invest in state services to address the chronic underfunding and understaffing. If we work together, we can ensure that all Colorado’s families and their communities can thrive.

Steven Arauza lives in Rifle.

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