Sallette Thompson

As a Coloradan who has dedicated my career to serving the people of this state, I was disheartened to see the Gazette Editorial Board’s recent piece supporting a dangerous status quo in state services.

State employees who are working tirelessly to maintain our roads, care for our veterans and other loved ones, get our state through the pandemic, and more are paid more than 16% less than our peers outside of state employment. Many have to work more than one job or even rely on food banks just to get by.

As a result, people have left state service in droves, creating a whopping 20% vacancy rate for state jobs. This causes severe understaffing in departments across the state, making it nearly impossible to provide Coloradans with the critical services they need now more than ever. In some instances, this understaffing is also quite dangerous.

I know firsthand, because I am a 25-year mental health professional and a state employee at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo (CMHIP). I came to work at the state hospital, where we treat people experiencing mental health issues, to make a difference in these patients’ lives. I love my patients. They’re funny and interesting and they just want what we all want — independence, community and opportunity.

But CMHIP is facing serious challenges. Patients and staff are suffering because we are understaffed due to low pay and underfunding. It’s a basic math problem that is complicated by the backdrop of criminal justice and behavioral health systems that have been broken for decades. The Gazette thoroughly covered this issue recently, which makes the board’s position even more puzzling.

The Gazette’s reporting confirmed what state employees contend with every day. Patients are waiting too long to receive critical care so that they can stand trial or be rehabilitated and returned to society.

We don’t have the time, staffing, or resources to provide all of the necessary treatments or sometimes to provide proper supervision. This creates volatile and sometimes tragic situations for patients and staff. We simply can’t afford not to invest properly in state services.

Investing in our public agencies and services is an investment in our neighbors, our loved ones and ourselves. If we don’t, government agencies can’t respond when we need services most. Nothing made this more clear than the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whether it was caring for patients and veterans in our state hospitals, connecting struggling Coloradans with unemployment and housing assistance, or keeping our communities safe, state employees were on the frontlines of this pandemic. We kept the state running on fumes, but these services had been underfunded and under-resourced for decades prior.

That’s why I was excited and relieved that state employees were able to work with the state of Colorado to negotiate this historic first contract agreement. This contract will help us begin to address the fundamental problems hurting state employees and the people we serve.

Our agreement includes 3% raises for state employees to help address low pay, which is the main driver of low staffing at most state agencies. Although the board seems to consider these to be exorbitant, pay raises negotiated in the contract don’t come close to the 16% disparity. Raises are simply intended to ensure that state workers can better support their families.

One thing the board and I agree on, is that Colorado’s government does not exist to employ people. It exists to provide public services for Coloradans, who have never needed robust, properly funded services more than during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Properly funding these agencies is a critical investment that Coloradans will reap the benefits of through clean air and water, safe roadways, properly staffed and safe hospitals, accessible and responsive state services, and more.

We can’t fail to adequately fund the services Colorado families, veterans, and patients rely on and then lament the inadequacy of the services when it’s too late. That is something Coloradans can’t afford.

Sallette Thompson is a psychologist at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo and Colorado WINS member.

Sallette Thompson is a Psychologist at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo and Colorado WINS member.

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