Law Enforcement

"Highly Overworked and Grossly Underpaid": Why Public Defenders Launched a Union

Staff members for the Office of Colorado State Public Defenders' Brighton branch.
Staff members for the Office of Colorado State Public Defenders' Brighton branch.
"Public defender" belongs on just about anyone's list of America's toughest jobs, as acknowledged in a compelling segment from HBO's Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. According to a summary of that package, "The Miranda warning includes the right to a public defender. It doesn’t include the fact that public defenders are highly overworked and grossly underpaid."

These challenges and more have led to the launch of the Defenders Union of Colorado, an organizing effort affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, Local 7799. Montana Fay, an attorney with the Office of Colorado State Public Defenders' Brighton branch who's been deeply involved in the DUC endeavor, believes that her experiences, and those of her co-workers and colleagues, illustrate why a union is so desperately needed.

"I've been a public defender in the Brighton office for about eight and a half years," Fay says, "and lately, I've seen my co-workers burning out and quitting at a rate I thought was unprecedented — and a lot of people were also feeling pressure because of the changes in the kind of work we do. There's a lot more use of technology by law enforcement, including body cameras and more scientific types of evidence, and as a result, the work required to represent people in a single case was growing."

The careers page of the Colorado public defenders' office describes it as "a statewide agency comprised of 21 regional trial offices, one appellate division, and a central administrative office. Each office has a managing attorney who is appointed by the State Public Defender. For the current fiscal year, the Office is appropriated a total of 889 FTE [full-time-equivalent employees], of which 535 are attorneys." The site highlights 23 different positions under five headings (attorneys, investigators, administrative employees, legal assistants and social workers), and they're all considered at will. Information listed by Zip Recruiter shows Colorado public-defender salaries in the $115,000-$125,000 range, but Kiyomi Bolick, another representative from the Defenders Union of Colorado, calls that "a dream." She documents a salary of $66,192 for deputy state public defenders with up to four years of experience, $80,112 for senior deputy public defenders with four-to-eight years of experience, and $96,432 for lead deputy state public defenders with eight-plus years of experience — all much less than many attorneys in the private sector make.

"I knew I was not going to get rich being a public defender, and I knew it was going to be hard work," Fay acknowledges. "I think anyone who goes into being a public defender gets involved because they believe in the work. But the volume has become so overwhelming that many people feel we can't provide effective or quality representation for our clients anymore."

According to Fay, COVID fallout was the tipping point that led to the formation of the union. "The pandemic made everyone more savvy about communicating online, and we found people across offices in the State of Colorado were able to connect by hopping on Zoom," she notes. "It was a different way of working than we'd done in the past, and the more we did it, the more we found that people were seeing the same pressures and stresses across the system.

"I'm one of the more experienced attorneys in my office," she continues. "But as more of the experienced attorneys began to leave, the ones that were left felt more pressure because they had to take on even more cases and more mentoring of younger lawyers. That's when the workload began to become even more untenable than it already was. We could see that the stressors on the Colorado system were reaching a boiling point, and we realized that a union was necessary for us to get a voice on the ground floor for the resources we're missing and need to do the job well."

At this point, DUC is known as a pre-majority union, and a Local 7799 spokesperson confirms that it doesn't have a collective-bargaining pact with the state, which is under no obligation to recognize it. Still, the organizers would like to see their efforts follow the path toward official recognition taken by Colorado Workers for Innovative and New Solutions, also known as Colorado WINS — and they hope it does so more quickly than that role model. The Local 7799 spokesperson notes that Colorado WINS, which currently represents more than 31,000 state employees, was originally formed in 2000 but didn't win collective-bargaining approval until 2020.

Nonetheless, Fay is optimistic. She says that hundreds of workers across the state "have demonstrated their support for the union," which "is wall-to-wall. That means we're comprised of public defenders from across the system, offices that are both metro and rural, and employees in all varieties of jobs within the system. We have attorneys, we have investigators, we have administrative staff, we have social workers, we have paralegals, and we have an IT department, as well."

She doesn't see the dynamic between the proposed union and the state as necessarily adversarial. "We share the same mission as our state office, and I believe our state office wants the same things for our clients," she says. "We get our resources from the legislature, and what our members really want is a seat at the table, so we can make sure the interests of the workers are being represented effectively, and so we can get the resources we need to do our jobs right. And our jobs are important. We're constitutionally mandated: When you're charged with a crime, you have the right to counsel. It's really impossible to navigate the system without an effective public defender system, from attorneys to administration."

Westword has reached out to the Office of Colorado State Public Defenders for comment about the union. Here's the Last Week Tonight piece about public defenders:
This post has been updated with salary information provided by a Defenders Union of Colorado representative.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

Latest Stories