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Colorado public defenders begin recruiting after forming union

With the Labor Day weekend imminent, Colorado’s public defenders have begun formally signing members up after forming a union in a bid to address what organizers described as unsustainable workloads, low pay and high turnover.

They also said onerous working conditions directly affect their ability to give clients the competent representation they’re entitled to.

The Defenders Union of Colorado (DUC), announced this week, is an affiliate of the Communication Workers of America 7799.

To address what members called systemic work overloads, they suggested caseload caps. In a news release, one member of the union said public defenders may carry more than 100 felony or 300 misdemeanor cases.

In Colorado, the legislature sets the budget and salaries for the public defender’s office.

The DUC also seeks skill pay for Spanish-speaking staff members, who the union says end up working as interpreters in addition to their formal job duties.

“The number-one thing is to have our workers represented on the fundamental questions affecting our work – so a voice for the folks who are in the trenches doing the work of criminal defense for indigent clients,” James Hardy, a DUC organizing committee member and a lead deputy public defender in the office’s appellate division, told The Denver Gazette.

Lead state public defender Megan Ring didn’t return a request for comment on the union.

Hardy said high turnover in Colorado’s office “hurts our clients as cases pass from attorney to attorney and positions remain unfilled.

“This was a motivator in forming DUC in the first place,” Hardy said.

All classifications of employees in the Office of the State Public Defender, except managers, are eligible for membership in DUC, which includes core and administrative staff, paralegals, investigators, attorneys and social workers.

Hardy said more than 450 eligible employees – more than half of the public defender’s office’s non-management employees – expressed support for the union before going public with its formation this week.

Siddhartha Rathod, whose law firm Rathod Mohamedbhai is acting as advisory counsel for the organizing effort, believes the show of support can overcome policy carve-outs that mean the state isn’t required to recognize DUC as a negotiating body. He said employees banding together to be treated as a union can build enough momentum to compel leadership to work with them, regardless of whether the state officially recognizes the DUC or not.

“The sheer power of people working together can make that happen,” Rathod said. “You can fire one or two or three employees, but you can’t fire 100 employees. The whole system will collapse.”

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