OPINION: The pandemic revealed how little we invest in government employees

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After reading a recent article by Colorado Sun reporter Tamara Chuang about the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, the thousands of desperate families that couldn’t access housing assistance during a pandemic, and one state employee who was responsible for fielding those calls, it’s hard to feel anything other than shock and outrage.

No doubt Stephanie Maney’s story is reflective of the story of countless other state employees, even in her own department, that were thrown into the worst pandemic, and one of the worst economic crises, of our time.  

Jude Mattoon, left, and Evelyn Hutt

Employees of state agencies that already have been drastically underfunded and understaffed for decades, now were faced with trying to help thousands of struggling Coloradans access critical services. 

The underfunding and undervaluing of our state workers is a problem that has been growing in severity for years, but the pandemic has exacerbated the issue and has now forced us all to face this serious problem. Special interests have been working to cut taxes and create loopholes for corporations and the wealthy few for decades, at the expense of state services and local communities.  

On top of that, TABOR established some of the strictest revenue and spending limits in the country, which further crippled our state budgets. Colorado fell far behind other states in areas such as per-pupil funding of K-12 education; state employees are paid about 16 percent less than comparable private-sector workers.  

The combination of TABOR, irresponsible tax cuts that led to state budget cuts, and a lack of understanding of the importance of our public infrastructure, has resulted in its gradual erosion.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

In this situation, the local affairs department brought in an exorbitantly expensive private, out-of-state contractor, nearly 9 months after the crisis began. The state is now paying some employees of the contractor $65 an hour to process housing applications, when they could have hired Coloradans at a far lower cost and created in-state jobs.  

It often seems like an easy answer to outsource these critical services to for-profit corporations that promise quick and cheap solutions. Unfortunately, as the department   is now finding out $6.5 million later – these promises are often too good to be true.  

At all levels of governments, we’ve tried outsourcing for decades and found that we end up paying more for less. Many times, these companies promise low price tags, but their only priority is to turn a profit, so they achieve these cost savings by cutting healthcare, retirement, and other important benefits for their employees, which hurts our communities in the long term. On top of that, once we outsource public services, we lose the transparency and accountability we need and deserve in public work.  

How different could things have been if we had properly staffed and funded these agencies to begin with. To be sure, no one could have predicted this pandemic, but we could have had state departments that were at least better funded and staffed to respond to it.  

It’s a convenient fact of life that we don’t like to think about important things like state services until we need them — until we lose our job, are in need of critical health care or mental health services, find our roads impassable, or are worried about the quality of our water or air, or our own safety. But the pandemic has brought the people providing these services to the forefront.  

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Our communities would come to a standstill without the state employees who are working in the midst of this crisis doing their best, while trying to protect their own health and the health of their families. People like Stephanie Maney and the thousands of other state workers who chose to work in public service because, as Maney states in the article, it was her opportunity to give back.

For our own good and the good of 6 million Coloradans, it’s time we start investing in our critical state agencies and workers and show them that we support them back.


Jude Mattoon and Evelyn Hutt are volunteer leaders at Together Colorado, a coalition of religious congregations, schools, and faith leaders across the state.


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