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Colorado bill to add labor protections for public workers advances in the Legislature

Senate Bill 23-111 would give those in public sector the right to discuss workplace issues

Public workers in Colorado who work in settings like school districts, hospitals and courts could soon receive labor protections afforded to private-sector workers under a bill making its way through the Colorado Legislature.

Senate Bill 23-111 would give public-sector workers the right to discuss workplace issues, organize or join an employee organization and participate in the political process outside of work hours. It would protect workers who raise concerns from retaliation – such as termination, threats and certain disciplinary actions – from their employers.

It would extend that right to employees within counties, municipalities, fire authorities, school districts, public colleges and universities, library districts, special districts, public defender’s offices, the University of Colorado hospital authority, the Denver Health and Hospital Authority and the General Assembly.

It doesn’t cover collective bargaining.

“It’s amazing to me that these rights haven’t been given to public workers,” bill sponsor Sen. Robert Rodriguez, a Denver Democrat, said at a press conference before the bill’s committee hearing Tuesday. He called it essentially a whistleblower protection bill.

“It’s a simple bill, in the sense that if you want to talk about your workplace, your co-workers and other issues and you’re threatened or retaliated against, that’s never good,” he said. “People want to work and want to provide services, and nobody should be threatened for trying to improve their workplaces.”

The bill passed through the Senate Committee on Local Government and Housing on Tuesday on a 4-3 party-line vote. It is also sponsored by Democratic Rep. Steven Woodrow of Denver. Democrats enjoy large majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.

The bill would set up a system where the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment would enforce any alleged violations. A worker could then appeal CDLE’s decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals.

The legislation has support from the Communications Workers of America 7799, which represents public employees such as public defenders, library workers, education employees and health care employees.

“We are organizing and speaking out today without the legal protections from recourse and retaliation that we need to feel safe and we deserve. There are hundreds of stories that should be heard today but won’t because there is legitimate retaliation from their employers,” said Jade Kelly, president of CWA-7799.

Kelly has worked at the University of Colorado Boulder for eight years and said she has seen colleagues intimidated by administration after sharing salary information in an attempt to combat a gender and racial pay gap on campus.

“That intimidation and coercion should have been a violation of state law, but it wasn’t,” Kelly said.

Opponents of the legislation say that although there is anecdotal evidence of poor treatment toward public workers, there are already adequate protections in place.

“The laws of the United States, the laws of Colorado and most government employers provide substantial existing protection for public employers, regardless of whether they have a collective bargaining agreement or not,” said Colorado Municipal League Executive Director Kevin Bommer. “Adding broad ambiguous language doesn’t meaningfully advance any protections, and actually confuses them.”

A law passed last year gives government employees in many Colorado counties the right to unionize and collectively bargain over pay, benefits and working conditions.

The bill now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

To read more stories from Colorado Newsline, visit www.coloradonewsline.com.