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A YEAR'S STRUGGLE | Meet some who have experienced the pandemic's effects up close

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Ridgemoor Apartment Homes

Ridgemoor Apartment Homes is a 252-unit affordable housing community near Simms Street and West Sixth Avenue in Lakewood.

Colorado Politics took a close look at how the world has changed around us after a year of the pandemic by looking through the eyes of those who have seen it up close. There is hardly any facet of life that hasn't changed, and some things will never be the same.

We found concerns and worries, optimism and hope, challenges and solutions. 

EMPLOYMENT: The workplace is more depressing and challenging

Liddy Romero, Worklife Partners founder and CEO

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CENTENNIAL, CO - FEBRUARY 3: During the pandemic, Liddy Romero runs her company, Worklife Partnership, from her home on February 3, 2021 in Centennial, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Liddy Romero knows what a job is worth on both sides of the paycheck.

Her family operated a cake shop when she was growing up.

“You break all kinds of child labor laws when you run a small bakery in McAllen, Texas,” she recalled. “The turnover of one person really does matter to a small business. It kept my parents away from the bandwidth to think beyond the day-to-day.”

Now Romero tries to help employers retain their best employees by helping front-line workers navigate the roiling economy and uncertain health crisis.

Romero leads the Denver-based nonprofit WorkLife Partnership, which helps untangle some of the workplace webs ahead by assigning a “navigator” to front-line workers to help them find help with housing, health care, affordable child care, transportation, food insecurity, domestic violence or other challenges that might keep needed workers off the job.

“It very much seeps in and out of the workplace,” Romero said about the troubled world.

When those employers have a handle on those factors, they can make informed decisions about retaining their workforce rather than constantly hiring and training.

Some workers just haven’t had good role-models on how to be reliable, ambitious employees, she said.

“I know I got my work ethic from my parents,” Romero said.

The pandemic's troubles will ripple through the workplace for years to come, she said.

Colorado will need to invest more in behavioral and mental health services, and the state already was short on addiction and recovery beds before the pandemic, Romero said.

“What’s happened during COVID is atrocious and horrific and I think there’s going to be a lot of mental health issues coming up,” she said.

Domestic violence is on the rise, yet harder to spot, with kids home from schools and abused spouses away from their office and friends.

“It is sad to see this happen, but there is a chance to rebuild something that is more equitable,” Romero said, on a hopeful note.

SMALL BUSINESS: Trying to make it last

Gail Lindley, owner of Denver Bookbinding

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DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 3: Gail Lindley, CEO of Denver Bookbinding Company, works together with her crew at the book restoration shop on February 3, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

The pandemic has been a double-edged sword for Gail Lindley, who owns 93-year-old Denver Bookbinding. One part of her business dropped substantially when the pandemic hit, but another took off.

“I would not want to repeat last March, April, May and June ever again,” Lindley said. Business for her 10-person company dropped by as much as 64%.

The company’s customers are printers and publishers for what’s known as “short runs,” small printing jobs of anywhere from one book — like someone wanting to bind a college thesis — to as many as 5,000 copies.

Lindley said she was able to get a Paycheck Protection Program grant, which she spent conservatively, to keep her employees on the payroll, pay the utility bills and keep her employees’ health insurance paid.

“We tried to make it last as long as possible,” she said.

In March, hardly anyone worked at all those last two weeks, she said. “As we started to gauge what was happening, we started increasing hours,” she said. By the end of June, everyone was back to work, and on a part of the business that usually doesn’t get a lot of attention: restorations.

With COVID, people stayed at home, cleaning out closets or reorganizing. Some found books that needed to be restored, so that part of Lindley's business, which is done by hand, picked up. That part of the company even had a “big rush” at Christmas. It’s allowed her to add another half-time employee.

“We’re a niche,” Lindley said. “Books are always going to be around, and I foresee us being around as long as we want to be.”

The one area that still needs work, according to Lindley, is Denver’s process for assessing property taxes. Lindley explained that the rule is that if your commercial property is zoned for eight stories, for example, but you have a one-story building, you’re still assessed at the higher rate.

“The city asks what they can do to help us stay in business,” Lindley said. “Keep our tax rates down.”

HOUSING: Keeping up by reaching out

Ashley, Lakewood

(Colorado Politics is withholding her last name at her request.)

In August 2019, Ashley was feeling optimistic about her life with her husband and 10-year old son.

She’d been a corporate accountant for 10 years in different industries, a profession that led her from her hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, to Colorado.

Moving to Colorado wasn’t just about her job, she said, pointing to better job opportunities and better schools for her son. The cultural and political climate in Colorado was more in line with her tastes, she added.

After a decade in the corporate world, she thought she had the experience and networks to strike out on her own. The market was good then, she said. “The business was going really well, I was continually increasing my client base and workload and was in the process of proposing and landing some big projects. Revenue month over month was increasing.”

Then the pandemic hit. Schools closed. The state went into a lockdown, and her family was stuck at home. 

At first, her business held up. After all, it was tax season, and that kept her going for the first two months.

The crash came at end of May. She lost 70% of her clients in six weeks.

They were able to keep up with the rent on her husband’s job as a transporter and what clients she had left until the end of July. That’s when they started to have to make decisions about bills, and it got harder to cover the rent.

In August, the past due notices started coming. The family had been renting the same place for four years, so they had a good relationship prior to the pandemic with the office staff and were proactive in communicating their situation, she said.

It was the management of the apartment complex that suggested Ashley reach out to the nonprofit Foothills Regional Housing. By then, they were behind on rent for August and September. Within a few weeks, Foothills got them caught up.

The day she heard they were getting help was emotional. Ashley got the call from a Foothills counselor, who said she was taking a check to the apartment complex that very afternoon.

“I completely lost it,” Ashley said. “I fell apart into tears. This was the first good news I’d had in months, months of waking up and wondering what kind of catastrophe was going to happen that day.”

Ashley also got one fiscal quarter of relief from the Small Business Administration, so now she's trying to get that assistance updated. She’s also stayed in touch with Foothills, as she is still struggling financially, including with rent.

Day-to-day is still constant stress, she said. “We’re figuring it out, and continuing to work with the clients I have and to make new inroads.”

“We’ve leaned on each other as a family,” Ashley said, which includes keeping their son at home for school since she’s been working from home during the pandemic. “If there’s one positive, we’ve become closer as a family and more appreciative of each other, more open about feelings and stress. It wouldn’t have been possible for us to deal with this if we didn’t do that.”

EDUCATION: Missing classes creates trying times for parent

Nicole Kane, Mother and Facebook group leader

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DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 3: Nicole Kane at her home with daughter Viv, 10, on February 3, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Nicole Kane is finished with Denver Public Schools. The single mother of a fifth-grade student plans to send her daughter to private school next year, angered over how the district has, by her estimate, provided only 30 days of in-person learning over the past year.

"She has developed a speech impediment. She's an only child," Kane said of her daughter, Vivienne. "She went almost a year, nine months, without any peer interaction. That's really hard."

She added that her daughter's test scores are lower now than they were at the same time last year. Consequently, she will be holding Vivienne back one year. Her daughter is frustrated about that decision, Kane acknowledged, but "it's not just about what she wants. As her parent, I have to make those decisions for her."

Although Kane is the administrator of a 1,000-member Facebook group called DPS Parents for In-Person Learning, she does not solely blame the school system for its inability to provide Vivienne with the environment she needs. Kane also faults the state for failing to take control and establish uniformity among the school districts.

"You look to where there are successes, you look to where there are failures. You replicate the successes and mitigate the failures," she said. "There needs to be a legislative oversight committee to make sure that happens."

She advocates for an across-the-state expectation that schools will reopen to in-person learning as a priority, with one entity directing the process. Safety concerns, to Kane, are overblown, because she believes children will do their part to keep others safe.

"We sell them short when it comes to wearing masks," she explained.

She also advocates for a holistic approach to helping kids, not merely examining what can be done in the classroom itself. Those measures could include further financial and mental health support for business owners and parents during the pandemic.

"It all matters, right? We need tax dollars, that's important. We need to educate our kids, that's important. We can't just look at one thing," Kane added.

JUSTICE: Deadly virus makes its way through a captive audience

John Peckham, Inmate in Colorado Department of Corrections

John L. Peckham

John L. Peckham

John Peckham is serving nearly two decades behind bars, but he worries the pandemic may turn it into a death sentence.

"My major problem is this: out there, you have a choice," said Peckham, 55, who has served six years with the Colorado Department of Corrections and has 12 more to go. "When someone is in a store or a restaurant not wearing a mask, you can ask them to put their mask on or leave, or you yourself can leave."

But in prison, inmates must use the dining hall, sitting close to others, and occupy a double cell with another person less than 6 feet away.

"You cannot self-distance, and that is why it spread so quickly in here," he added.

Peckham, who is at Arrowhead Correctional Center in Cañon City, wrote to Colorado Politics through his attorneys. He noted that the ACLU of Colorado had won important concessions from the CDOC in implementing pandemic protocols. But both staff and inmates still do not wear masks sometimes, do not wash their hands or do not follow other guidelines. Peckham, who said he already contracted COVID-19, is scared.

"It is a well-known axiom in mental health that isolation fosters depression. I want the lawmakers to make sure we have single cells, but we should not be isolated to the point of damaging our mental health," he said. "I believe the health benefits of having regular access to the outdoors, a means to contact the outside, and the usual daily contact with inmates and staff would be good. And, like for everyone out there, therapy and or mental health assistance is a good thing."

Although Gov. Jared Polis has refused to prioritize inmates for the COVID-19 vaccine, despite the known risks of transmission in congregate settings, Peckham would like the governor to reconsider. He also advocates for allowing inmates to place video calls on tablets affordably, and to parole individuals in greater numbers.

"Now the variant versions are coming here." Peckham said. "You can catch it more than once."

LOCAL GOVERNMENT: Opportunity through partnership

Adam Paul, Lakewood mayor

Adam Paul

Adam Paul poses with constituents at his campaign kickoff for Lakewood's mayor on May 20, 2015, at All Star Park.

The COVID-19 pandemic has done a demolition job on local government budgets, but Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul thinks asphalt can pave the road to recovery.

“It's been really very painful and we look forward to recovery, but we’ve got a long way to go,” he said.

Paul, who has served as mayor since 2015 after an eight-year stint on Lakewood City Council, said the city had to cut some $17 million out of its budget in the face of declining revenues brought on by the coronavirus. Lakewood received a $12 million boost from the federal CARES Act, but Paul said a majority of those funds were pushed out to provide relief for local businesses and shield police officers and other city staff from layoffs.

That kept municipal employees in their jobs, but meant across-the-board cuts nearly everywhere else, including a “pretty substantial” hit to the city’s public works department. A survey from the Colorado Municipal League of roughly two-thirds of Colorado’s cities and towns shows Lakewood isn’t alone — nearly half the respondents said they cut capital improvements to help balance shrinking budgets.

But Paul said those challenges present an opportunity, particularly if the feds are willing to partner with locals. While he’s worried about Washington lawmakers running up the deficit, he believes federal funds targeted toward infrastructure projects could amount to “an opportunity to build off this pandemic to make systemic change.”

“In our case, we've seen a lot of businesses closed that aren't going to come back, but we can flip this into an opportunity where we can provide jobs in infrastructure renewal,” Paul said. “We can take advantage of this workforce that may not be able to go back to where they were, but can shift to the long-term needs that we've neglected forever: our highways, our infrastructure, our power grid, other areas where we need to maintain or rebuild as a nation.”

RURAL HEALTH CARE: Crisis becomes the mother of invention

Kevin Stansbury, CEO of Lincoln Community Hospital and Care Center

Getting by was an uphill climb for Colorado’s rural hospitals before COVID-19. Critical help a long way from a big town has innate challenges for far-flung places across a state only dotted with population centers.

Kevin Stansbury, the leader of Lincoln Community Hospital and Care Center in Hugo, has a front-row seat to an unfolding tragedy in rural health care. The 15-bed hospital is the only place to get serious help in a 75-mile radius.

With revenue in a tailspin, he’s maintaining a hospital, nursing home and three family practice clinics the best he can without additional challenges from the state legislature, which is considering a public option insurance plan that could restrict how he can operate.

Nobody said small-town life would be easy for the former big-city executive.

“This is the hardest job I’ve ever had, but it’s the best job I’ve ever had,” he said in an afternoon phone call.

Stansbury grew up mostly in Chicago. His dad was a truck driver and the family moved every few years. He went to high school in western Nebraska, studied at the University of Wyoming and settled on the rural Eastern Plains of Colorado in 2014.

He named off some of the third-world countries where he’s tried to help deliver health care in his past jobs.

“I was drawn to come to rural health care because a lot of the mission is the same,” Stansbury said. “We’re trying to serve an underserved population and to bring equitable health care to people who really struggle to get it.”

Rural hospitals typically operate at loss, and they're counting on federal help and state cooperation.

Stansbury oversees a hospital, a long-term care nursing center, an assisted living facility, three primary health clinics, home health care and hospice.

"If we didn't do those things, no one else would," he said. "The big systems don't want to touch it, because there's no (profit) margin in it, so it's the small, community-based hospitals that [are] meeting the health care needs of rural America right now."

He also now hosts a weekly Facebook Live program to share health news, and he's hopeful for benefits from mass familiarity with platforms such as Zoom and legislators who now see the value of rural broadband.

The times call for small-town town pluck, still.

When mask orders started last year, big suppliers stopped selling Stansbury his typical supply. 

"One of the things I thought I'd never do is make a deal with a local quilt shop to produce about a thousand masks for us," he said. 

CHILDREN: Mental health concerns DPS teacher

David Nagy, social studies teacher at Denver Public Schools

If David Nagy were to administer a self-assessment, his emotional and mental health after the pandemic will probably be fine. But he is worried about the others.

"I know that a lot of teachers have become very sedentary. A lot of teachers have begun drinking more. A lot of teachers are experiencing marital problems," he said. "Once this is all said and done, we really need to expand resources to take care of those teachers."

Nagy works at Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello, teaching social studies mostly to sixth-graders. Over the past 10 months, he has learned of parents who lost jobs, parents who committed suicide. And the students are witnessing these stressors of COVID-19.

"I think they are resilient," Nagy said. "I think they can bounce back, and they can learn the things that they were deprived of during this time. I think that they might be stronger in the long run for everything they've experienced."

Unlike other teachers, Nagy is not averse to returning to the classroom in person before he receives a vaccination. He believed DPS had a reasonable blueprint for doing just that in the early summer, before a later change in direction.

From his point of view, meaningful assistance from the state comes in three forms. First, there should be a streamlined set of online tools for parents and students. Nagy ticked off a list of programs — Google Calendar, Schoology, Infinite Campus, Flyer, parent and student portals — that all serve different functions for the school and for families.

While he understands local control of schools exists in Colorado, legislators might consider "a commission or an investigation into a streamlined software program or application," he suggested.

Second, Nagy would like to see a committee on school reopening to help school districts with their plans by using a common, predictable approach across Colorado — and asking the questions of school districts that parents and teachers are left to ask now.

Finally, he believes in waiving the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, or CMAS, standardized test for 2021. An online petition from the Colorado Education Association and American Federation of Teachers in Colorado is also encouraging the General Assembly to do just that.

"This is not their fault. They have no control over the situation," he said of the students. "We need to have maybe a simple test per grade level to determine competency or understanding in the subject."

CHILD CARE: A roller-coaster ride of supply and demand 

Sonia Brown, Child care provider at Sonia's Childcare

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BROOMFIELD, CO - FEBRUARY 4: Sonia Brown has been providing child care from her home for over 20 years, and spends her morning playing games with six young children on February 4, 2021 in Broomfield, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Sonia Brown is counting her lucky stars. As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the health and fortunes of her colleagues in the child care field, the owner of Sonia’s Childcare says the families of all six children she cares for kept her on the payroll, even as only three were showing up each day.

“I know some child care providers have money or health issues from being around with this pandemic, they had to close and they are now closed totally,” said Brown, a 53-year-old Mexican immigrant who for the last 24 years has been running a Broomfield child care center for infants and children up to five years old. “I'm one of the lucky ones.”

The transition to working from home in the early days of the pandemic meant fewer Coloradans needed child care services. And while business for child care providers plummeted, the cost to provide child care soared. Brown said her bill for cleaning supplies has doubled as she seeks to comply with health and safety regulations and provide a safe space for the kids she cares for. 

Add in the cost for some larger facilities to bring on additional staff to help accommodate smaller, more dispersed groups of children and Brown says child care providers were staring down a crisis.

But the services they provide became more important than ever, particularly for essential workers in health care and grocery stores who couldn’t work from the comfort of home. That led Gov. Jared Polis and lawmakers to push through a relief package last year that included a $45 million grant program to help licensed child care providers keep their doors open.

Brown received her grant last month, a $990 check she plans to use to install no-touch faucets on her sinks and automatic paper towel dispensers to cut down on potential transmission points. Other providers were eligible for up to $34,270 on a sliding scale based on quality of service and licensed capacity. 

While Brown said the funds helped, she believes the child care field will need continued support.

“With the vaccine, hopefully we get back to normal and we won’t have to spend as much money on supplies in the future,” she said. “But for now it’s the same thing: we still need to spend more money to keep the kids safe. It would be nice to be able to count on a little bit more.”  

This story was compiled by Joey Bunch, Michael Karlik, Marianne Goodland and Pat Poblete. 

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