Colorado state government faces 20-plus percent vacancy rate

Krista Bernard walks into her work with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients at a state-run veterans’ home in Florence knowing that most days, she’ll be doing the work of two people.

Usually, it means an exhausting shift of running around trying to keep the 11 residents cared for, clean and happy. Sometimes, it means there are not enough hands to help when a memory care resident becomes disoriented and struggles. Sometimes, that means she’s choked, concussed or kicked hard enough to hobble her. Just recently, a resident wrenched her wrist badly enough to warrant an MRI.

She doesn’t fault patients for their illnesses and credits her bosses for help when she’s hurt. It’s an unfortunate reality of a fraught environment — made doubly so by her double duties.

“100%, I believe that, in those instances, if I had a second aide with me and I wasn’t doing it by myself, I don’t think those things would have happened as easily and we would have been able to stop them sooner,” Bernard said.

A hundred miles north, Daniel Berrios wakes at 3 a.m. to ready for another 12-hour shift at a Colorado State Patrol dispatch center in Lakewood. Overtime that was once a nice financial boost that staffers jockeyed for has become mandatory so they can handle call volumes that don’t wane based on manpower. But beyond personal exhaustion and missing his kid’s baseball games, he worries about the people on the other end of his line.

“We have the entire state to cover,” Berrios, a dispatcher at Colorado State Patrol’s Lakewood Communications center. “If we don’t have proper staffing for that, what you end up with is lots and lots of overtime for dispatchers and a lot of very exhausted dispatchers. And an inattentive dispatcher is not something you want.”

The state is facing a nearly 23% vacancy rate across the board as post-pandemic burnout, a more competitive private sector, and other factors continue to reap their toll. In all, some 7,500 positions were open out of more than 33,000 as of July 19, according to data from the Department of Personnel and Administration.

The void varies by department, but nearly all have at least 10% of their jobs unfilled. The Department of Public Safety, which includes the Colorado State Patrol, is down more than 550 people, or 22% of its workforce, and some dispatch centers have about half their authorized employees.

The Department of Human Services, where Bernard works, perhaps feels it most acutely, with nearly 2,500 open vacancies, or nearly 35% of its authorized workforce. Many of those are seasonal or temporary, officials there said, but it still faces a gap of about 20% of its full-time staff, even as hiring efforts ramp up.

The openings mean forced overtime for public safety workers, vacant behavioral health beds when the state can’t staff them, and snags in state services Coloradans expect — and pay for.

Officials across the board noted that a lack of government workers isn’t a problem unique to Colorado. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the national union for government workers, has launched a nationwide effort to increase the workforce.

Higher-than-desired vacancy rates are something that local governments face, too, Gini Pingenot, director of external affairs for Colorado Counties Inc., said.

“In the county world, recruitment in areas like law enforcement and public health are really acute right now,” Pingenot said, noting the charged cultural environment around those sectors in particular. “In part, that’s because we’re continuing to chase the private sector with salaries, and we’re also competing for people with the same skill sets and desire to do public service.”

To goose the number of state employees, the Legislature authorized a 5% across-the-board raise for state employees, which took effect July 1, and higher for some job types. It authorized hiring bonuses for some nurses. The state has also expanded its hiring pool to emphasize skills, and not just formal qualifications, Doug Platt, spokesperson for the Department of Personnel and Administration, said.

“It’s clear to say the state identified it as a challenge some time ago and that’s why we have the employer of choice initiative in the first place,” Platt said, referring to an effort to compete with the private sector and boost the desirability to work for the state. “We’re starting to see the benefits, starting to see the movement of the needle. It’s not going to be a quick fix, but we feel we’re making movement”

Trying to break “a self-perpetuating death spiral”

State officials identified trouble with recruitment and retention around 2019, Platt said. He doesn’t know of a specific red flag but noted that that’s when they launched an “employer of choice” program. It’s also the year Gov. Jared Polis formally swore in for his first term.

The COVID-19 pandemic, like it did all facets of life, exasperated stress on employees. Berrios and Bernard both said it amplified pre-existing workplace stress. Bernard joined the veterans’ home in January 2020. She was part of a “mass exodus” about a year later as people left over burnout, higher-paying jobs or other concerns, though she later returned to the fold.

Berrios was similarly considered an essential employee during the peak of the pandemic. In the fallout, some dispatchers started looking around at similar jobs in other metro-area counties and seeing better schedules and higher pay. That left remaining workers to pick up the slack, fueling burnout and prayers that new hires stick to a job that can be harrowing in the best of times. It often didn’t work out, he said.

“It had a snowball effect,” Berrios said. “You lose one, you lose two you lose three. You can’t catch up. You’re always behind the 8-ball.”

Bernard and Berrios each talk of dedication to the job and the Coloradans they serve. They wouldn’t do it otherwise. But worry about the long-term effects on themselves, their professions and the folks they serve swirls.

Hilary Glasgow, executive director of the state employee union Colorado WINS, put it in starker terms: “It’s a self-perpetuating death spiral.” But one state officials and workers are trying to break out of. (Both Bernard and Berrios are union stewards and specified they are only speaking of their experiences, not on behalf of their agencies.)

The state and the union reached an agreement last year on higher pay increases and eventual step raises that Glasgow’s hopeful will help make long-term state employment more attractive. The union contract is what helped attract Bernard back to state work after spending time in private-sector nursing. But she expects it will be several months still before the changes — and how effective they are — are fully felt.

Glasgow noted that the state faces the same problem as many employers do, but the very nature of government works creates different conditions for solving it. For one, state budgeting means the employer can’t pivot as easily to meet labor market conditions. And for another, the state is often the only option when it comes to providing the services.

She used an analogy: If a grocery store can’t hire workers, then maybe lines get long and frustrated customers go somewhere else and the company loses profits. People can’t go elsewhere for state services.

“It’s important for people to be concerned about the vacancy rate because if we don’t have the people who are running the human infrastructure of the state, that affects the entire state,” Glasgow said. “And it affects more than how long we have to wait in line at the DMV.”

Or, as Berrios described the demands of consecutive 12-hour shifts helping people through crisis: “There’s an emotional toll to be had, constantly living on that edge of not wanting to make a mistake. But, am I too tired, and am I up to do the job on my fourth day on hour 10?”

Workers in less life-and-death roles, feel the strain, too. Jovan Mladinic, a desk clerk for a metro-area Department of Motor Vehicles said frequent customers there have taken note of a rotating cast of staff and the resulting loss of institutional know-how. As a union steward, he’s filed complaints on behalf of colleagues for material changes to their working conditions as the department tries to fill gaps.

Inadequate staffing at the DMV — the stereotype of faceless bureaucracies — leads to angry customers, which leads to burned-out workers and perpetuation of that stereotype, he warned.

Being on the lower end of the state pay scale — he said he makes about $19 an hour — he wonders how much the celebrated 5% raise will mean for their material conditions. In Mladinic’s case, he expects it will cover a rent increase he’ll split with a roommate and then maybe leave him with another $10 a week in his pocket.

It makes seemingly celebratory emails, like one notifying him of things like museum discounts for state workers, sting.

“I don’t make enough money to live,” Mladinic said. “I can’t afford to go to museums or these events.”

He sees a base wage aimed at people’s ability to live where they work as ideal not just for the existing workforce, but keeping them there and saving the state on eventual training costs.

“That will bring back the American dream,” Mladinic said. “If Colorado is the first place to do that, that’s great.”

“Essential” to close workforce gaps. “So much hangs in the balance.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and chair of the budget-setting Joint Budget Committee, said lawmakers are well aware of the “vicious cycle” perpetuated by low staffing, particularly in 24/7 services.

The death of an exhausted corrections officer who fell asleep at the wheel after an overnight shift and during a spat of mandatory overtime hung heavy in their minds as they wrote the budget this year, she said.

The budget committee reworked state spending to up employee pay by 5%, and higher for some job classifications, in hopes of upping retention. They prioritized 24/7 facilities and positions with vast pay differences compared to the private sector. Without those workers, the state can’t perform its duties, she said, and that has real-world consequences.

Zenzinger said she gets emails regularly from constituents asking for help with unemployment claims, for example. Inadequate staffing there potentially opens the state to fraudulent claims. Slow payouts mean people who paid into the system potentially miss rent or can’t afford groceries.

“We are very well aware of the issues that crop up when you have workforce shortages,” Zenzinger said. “We really truly prioritized that this year almost as much as we prioritized education, which for us was kind of our top priority. We know how essential it is we close these workforce gaps because so much hangs in the balance.”

At the same time, Zenzinger said the elected officials in charge of the budget are cognizant of budgetary constraints and not hiring just for the sake of it. While the budget writers can’t specify how many people get hired, they do specify how much money is set aside for it.

“We were mindful of not growing state government beyond what we can support because every time you add a position, you have to carry that forward,” Zenzinger said.

State officials are also working on a plan for raises based on years of service to the state, known as step raises, after years of prioritizing merit raises. It was signed into the union’s contract under the hopes it would keep workers around.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Polis highlighted the state’s moves to online services and an executive order to shift toward skills-based hiring versus needing specific accreditations. The spokesperson, Melissa Dworkin, also said the state’s low unemployment rate reflects the tough competitive environment.

“Colorado’s strong economy continues to grow with the unemployment rate well below the national average, contributing to Colorado’s robust and competitive marketplace,” Dworkin said in the statement. “As Gov. Polis mentioned in his State of the State address this year, there are two jobs for every unemployed person in Colorado. The Polis administration in partnership with the legislature continues to boost workforce development to fill in-demand jobs, and the competitive market is also a reflection of Colorado’s strong and growing economy.”

Department heads praise workers while emphasizing strides to bulk workforce

Officials with the Colorado State Patrol and Colorado Department of Human Services, where Berrios and Bernard respectively work, were optimistic changes in pay and the labor market were bound to help staffing levels rebound.

CPS Communications Center Director Jeremy Bussell said they’ve seen a net increase in new hires the past couple of years, meaning more people sign on than leave. Staffing shortages are still top of mind for dispatchers — though, he noted, the dispatch center in Montrose is fully staffed — but it’s not as all-encompassing a concern as it was.

He chuckled at a recent request from dispatchers during an employee town hall: They wanted more comfortable uniform pants. A fair request, he said, but notable in that staff have room to think about more than just needing more coworkers.

Bussell and his deputy, Capt. Nick Carnival, tout steps they’ve taken to streamline hiring and, they hope, continue to chip away at staffing shortages. For example, they were able to trim the hiring process from taking six or more months to only about two. There’s still about a 25% washout rate for trainees, though that’s a reflection of the demands of the job as much as staffing-related burnout. And some turnover isn’t bad, Bussell said, especially if it’s so someone can pursue something that makes them more satisfied, whether that’s in other capacities with CSP or not.

“I want folks who want to work for CSP because that’s what they want to do,” Bussell said. “They want to help the patrol, and they want to help the people of Colorado.”

While the job does come with inherent demands, from dealing with traumatic situations to requiring some to miss holidays because of 24/7 staff demands, Bussell said his vision is to cut down on 12-hour shifts once more hires are made.

Bussell and Carnival were effusive in praise for the dispatchers working through the ups and downs of staffing. Even when they are at half the manpower they should have, dispatchers have done their jobs, Bussell and Carnival said. To help reinforce dispatchers’ vital role, they installed a “kudos board” for troopers to likewise share their appreciation.

“We have never had mission failure,” Carnival said. “We always have been able to accomplish the mission and that’s of course why some of the shifts are longer. That’s why there’s some of the mandatory overtime but we’ve never, never lost mission focus and we’ve never failed the mission. They’re always there for us.”

Pedro Almeida, a deputy executive director at the Colorado Department of Human Services, likewise noted the inherent demands of working with some of Colorado’s most vulnerable populations, such as those with behavioral health needs and aging veterans.

“It is a demanding shift, we know that, we understand that,” Almeida said. “It is a place, however, that also brings the rewards, from a mission perspective, of working with some of the people in Colorado that need the most care.”

Staffing shortages have led to things like beds being unavailable to patients — what good is a bed without a worker to staff it, after all — and stretching staffing to meet needs, including bringing in outside workers, Kim Farestad, deputy director for health facilities for CDHS said. The end goal is to have enough full-time workers to fully staff the department’s needs, she said.

To that extent, hiring bonuses that began in September and were recently ramped up seems to be making a dent, Almeida and Farestad said. In July, they had more than 3,100 applicants for jobs in the department — double what they saw in 2021.

Much of that they attribute to more competitive pay. Bernard herself also sees that as key, and said conditions seem to be turning around at her facility as a result. She and Berrios are each hopeful the recent moves by the state and the union will help turn a corner on long-term staffing levels — but also that it’ll take time for hiring, training, and seeing if new recruits turn into veterans.

“Better pay and working conditions will make a difference,” Bernard said. “It’s slowly starting to improve here. I do believe in our administrator and the stuff she’s trying to work out. Pay — better pay — is what’s going to drive the CNAs back.”

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