Emma Cherry

Emma Cherry

Last March, as toilet paper and disinfectant flew off shelves, Coloradans didn’t know how our state could weather this global health emergency. But a year into the pandemic, we’ve seen how some unlikely heroes have used their grit and a sense of community to help us persevere.  

We saw people in low-wage positions (like grocery clerks, delivery drivers, and custodians) put their own lives at risk to keep us safe, healthy and fed. We saw that public employees were working harder than ever, tracking the virus, providing health care, keeping our water and air clean, supporting unemployed people, educating our children, and more. The past 12 months have shown that it’s the people whose work often goes unnoticed who have helped our communities get through the worst of the pandemic. 

I work as a teacher for middle- and high-school kids with special needs at a state-run youth detention facility. My students are young people who have been committed by the state after serious trauma and often violent crimes. They depend on me and my coworkers to ensure that they are able to continue their education during a particularly difficult and important time in their lives. But I do so much more than teaching in my work. I create consistency and routine in their lives — and I make sure they know that I care about them and their future — all of which is incredibly important for vulnerable kids. My work also helps them learn to think critically, apply their knowledge to everyday life, and make a plan for their futures. 

I love seeing the impact I have on the kids I teach and I work hard to help them through this tough time in their lives. Unfortunately, despite the clear benefit of my work for both the kids I teach and the community I live in, we often don’t have what we need to do our jobs safely and effectively. At a time when the services we provide are more important than ever, state employees are dealing with wages that aren’t keeping up with the cost of living, longer hours, and trying to do more with less staff and fewer resources.  

And we aren’t alone. My union, Colorado WINS, participated in a survey of nearly 5,000 public employee union members across the country and found that 38% say they were understaffed even before the pandemic. The truth is many state employees are risking our own health, and our families’, to make sure people in our communities get what they need. That’s why we are calling on our state and federal legislators to protect, respect and pay people for this critical work.

Our elected leaders must ensure we have the resources we need to provide the public services Coloradans are counting on. Even before the pandemic, one in five Colorado state jobs were vacant and understaffing was creating safety concerns for staff and the people we serve.  Colorado needs to ensure our communities are supported by directing the funds from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan to fund public services essential to Coloradans. After the last recession, cuts to state and local services were the single largest drag on recovery. We can’t repeat that mistake again, especially since we know that states which maintained their funding for public services recovered dramatically faster from the economic downturn.   

This time we must put working people at the center of our economic recovery from the pandemic. Many essential workers, including state employees, don’t make enough money to support their own families. Our state’s congressional delegation can do something about that right now by supporting a bill to increase the federal minimum wage. Coloradans understand that a higher minimum wage benefits our economy and our communities, that’s why we voted to increase our state minimum wage nearly 5 years ago. Since then we’ve seen that putting money directly into people’s pockets helps our communities and our economy. If the federal minimum wage was increased to $15/hr, more than half a million Coloradans would see an immediate increase in their take-home pay. 

I hope that another year from now, our hard work and determination will begin to put COVID-19 behind us. Until that time, this pandemic should serve as an urgent reminder that we need to think differently about public services. Colorado needs good people who are committed to meeting these challenges with expertise and compassion. Investing in public service now means people like me can provide critical services to everyone in need and ensure a brighter future for our communities.  

Emma Cherry is a special education teacher for the Division of Youth Services in Colorado Springs. She is a member of Colorado WINS, the union representing state employees, and has worked for the state for two years. 

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