Public Defenders Union Petition Hopes to Allocate Funding Boost to Core Staff

When members of Colorado’s public defender’s office unionized last fall, the organization hoped to improve working conditions for the more than 500-attorney office. While it faces additional hurdles as a public employee union, members say they’ve made progress. 

Defenders Union of Colorado is a pre-majority, wall-to-wall union made up of nonmanagement employees of the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender. Since it was officially announced Sept. 1, 2022, the group has gained more than 300 members, according to union leadership. 

While DUC hasn’t been recognized officially by OSPD, members say they’ve made promising steps towards DUC’s eight initiatives which include creating workload caps for attorneys, increasing pay for nonlawyer staff, creating skill-based pay increases for bilingual workers and more. 

Most recently, DUC circulated a petition in the hope of reducing pay gaps for staff ahead of the office’s legislative budget request. 

“What we’re advocating for primarily is increased pay for our core staff,” said James Hardy, a lead deputy public defender in OSPD’s appellate division who has worked at the office for about 14 years. Hardy is one of DUC’s co-chairs and explained DUC’s initiatives and current focuses were based on an office-wide survey that identified low wages as a priority for many workers in OSPD. 

On April 14, DUC sent a petition to Megan Ring, the Colorado State Public Defender and head of OSPD. The petition put forward four requests: use any budget increases from the legislature to bring core staff up to market rates of pay; commit to not increasing pay for those already making market rate, except for the 5% annual increase currently earmarked for all state employees; create a minimum $3,000 annual pay stipend for bilingual employees; and increase transparency in the department for how salaries and raises are allocated. 

A copy of the petition obtained by Law Week shows it gained 546 signatures, a significant portion of OSPD’s workforce. In last year’s fiscal year report from OSPD, the office estimated it had a total of 1,050 employees statewide (577 lawyers, 173 investigators, 69 paralegals, 23 social workers, 154 administrative assistants and 54 centralized management and support positions). 

DUC is organized under a local chapter of the Communication Workers of America and Hardy said the petition is believed to be one of the largest pre-majority actions based on feedback from other unions across the country. 

“Part of our workload issues are that we have had an incredible amount of attrition over the past three years,” said Hardy. The petition’s four requests hope to reduce turnover, he explained. 

Last year’s OSPD report also noted a steady increase in attrition across the office, with 19% annual attrition reported in fiscal year 2021-22 for all positions — up from 15% in the previous fiscal year. Among workers, the highest turnover was with lawyers who had a 21% annual attrition rate in fiscal 2021-22 and 30% for administrative assistants compared to 15% and 19% in the previous fiscal year. The report set a 12% attrition rate target.

For fiscal 2023-24, OSPD requested increased funding from the Colorado General Assembly to increase compensation for a number of positions found to be paid under market. 

A survey commissioned by OSPD found as of July 2022, 98% of its staff were paid below market rates compared to other public sector legal organizations. The largest pay gaps identified by the survey, according to data published by OSPD in its fiscal 2023-24 budget request, were for investigators who made between 31.5% and 36.4% less than market rates, paralegals who made between 26.4% and 28% less and attorneys who made 26.2% less. Gaps for administrative employees were between 10.5% and 32.8% less and 19.1% less for social workers. 

In the budget request, OSPD advocated for increased funding to meet the pay gaps. “If the significant market lag of the OSPD pay structure is not addressed, the attrition rate will continue to increase,” the report said. On April 21, Gov. Jared Polis signed off on an additional $16 million in funding to go toward market pay gaps identified in the survey. The petition asks OSPD to allocate the funding boost to those making under market pay before increasing pay for those making market rates. 

James Karbach, director of legislative policy and external communications of OSPD, said in an email to Law Week that the consultant who executed the salary survey recommended creating a pay-grade system to increase compensation for workers. 

“Step and grade compensation plans promote equity, transparency and predictability, allowing defenders to find longevity in the important work we do,” said Karbach. He added the market analysis study was used to inform the office’s latest budget request “with the goal being to address the pay of employees who are the most under the market.” 

Karbach said the office is looking at how other state agencies compensate Spanish-speaking employees and the new pay plan structure and policies will be sent to OSPD workers by late June. 

“We have been communicating with all of our staff throughout this process to answer questions and provide information about the upcoming changes and will continue to do so,” Karbach added.

While DUC has not been formally recognized by OSPD, Hardy believes it’s had an impact. Notably, he said, all employees of OSPD were sent an email from HR several days after the petition was submitted that indirectly addressed some of the concerns voiced. 

Hardy added that many of DUC’s initiatives have been topics discussed at OSPD since he joined the office 14 years ago and he said he feels the tone has shifted when it comes to voicing concerns. 

“There’s certainly been movement and it’s all come after we put it on the table,” Hardy said. 

Unlike private employer unions, DUC isn’t covered by the National Labor Relations Act. But the Colorado legislature passed a bill this session to create some protections for public employees who engage in union activities. 

Hardy hopes in the future DUC and OSPD can collaborate to advocate for improved working conditions and funding from the general assembly. 

“Regardless of the legal status, ultimately, all unions are about people power and members and solidarity,” said Hardy. “We think we have our finger on the pulse of what people want and need and what the system needs… in our minds, it’s never been us versus them. It’s always been a ‘let’s find a way we can be more effective as a system.’”

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