Staffers At The Colorado Capitol Say Low Wages And No Benefits Make Their Jobs ‘Unsustainable’

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Climbing the Rotunda staircase at the Capitol in Denver as the Colorado General Assembly opened its 2021 session on Wednesday, Jan. 13.

Ayah Ziyadeh is a veteran of the state Capitol. This is her third session as a legislative aide, making her one of the most senior of the roughly 100 staffers working for Colorado’s state lawmakers.

But this year will likely be her last, she said. Because, like many people, Ziyadeh can’t afford to keep working in the statehouse.

“I love my boss. I love the work I do,” she said, “But at the end of the day, I am building a career out of this, and now I'm 24.”

Before she goes, though, Ziyadeh wants to lay the groundwork for changes that she believes would make life in the Capitol more sustainable and equitable. She’s among the organizers of the new Political Workers Guild of Colorado, a workers’ association that would be among the first of its kind in the U.S. 

The guild made its public debut today with 64 members, representing a majority of the aides who work for Democratic lawmakers. The group does not include any Republican staffers. 

Aides like Ziyadeh make $15 an hour. On a typical day, they might help constituents with unemployment benefits or organize meetings with powerful interests about controversial legislation. And over the past year, many have served as crucial resources for everyday people struggling with government benefits during the pandemic.

“A lot of people have second jobs because it's just not sustainable whatsoever, especially in a place like Denver where the costs are ever-rising,” said Ziyadeh, an Aurora resident who is pursuing a master’s degree in international human rights at the University of Denver.

Ziyadeh hopes to leave the Capitol for a steadier job, perhaps at an advocacy group.

Courtesy of Ayah Ziyadeh
Ayah Ziyadeh, a legislative aide, working at home in Aurora.

Not everyone can afford low-wage jobs

The new group is what’s known as an “open” union. Members pay dues, but no one will be compelled to join. And it will not have the powers of a traditional union, such as collective bargaining for pay increases. 

Instead, the guild will serve as a public face for workers who say that the state needs to rethink its approach to political professionals. 

“It is not a legally binding negotiating partner like traditional unions are. It is much more persuasive,” said Zack Burley, a former aide and an organizer of the group.

Like many professional fields, politics has long relied on internships and low-paid starter jobs for labor. Those who work hard and make sacrifices will progress to better things — or so the message goes.

But organizers say the ultimate result of those policies is to ensure that the Capitol staff skews affluent and white, because that’s who can afford to work a low-wage political job.

“You basically have to have a benefactor in order to be able to work at the Capitol and afford rent in Denver,” said Logan Davis, a political consultant who is helping to organize the group.

Besides legislative aides, the open union also will include people who work on election campaigns.

Sophie Thomas of Commerce City is one of the youngest aides at 19. In addition to working in the Capitol, she also has a job in a retail store to afford her tuition at the University of Denver, where she earned a scholarship.

“I'm working 30 hours a week, which means I don't have a lot of time to focus on homework (or) free time, hobbies and stuff like that,” she said. "I want this to be a sustainable career.”

AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post, Pool
Gov. Jared Polis delivers his State of the State address in front of the House of Representatives at the Colorado State Capitol Building on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.

Wages and hours for Capitol aides are set by the legislature

The fight to achieve that won’t be straightforward. Legal aides aren’t included in Colorado WINS, the statewide union that negotiates on behalf of other employees, under state law.

And the question of whether they can strike or bargain is a “gray area” because the law says little about it, according to Burley.

Instead, legislative salaries are set during the legislature’s budget process. Aides have seen some increases in recent years — their wages were just $10 an hour in 2012. A raise is under consideration this year.

The legislature also has increased the number of hours that aides can work. Previously, each lawmaker could only use a total of 420 aide hours per year. That number is now 1,300, allowing the aides to work outside the legislative session.

Each member’s budget for aides has grown from about $5,000 in 2008 to $25,000 today, or about $2.5 million for the entire assembly, according to public records.

But the current aide pay is still shy of a livable wage for a single person in Colorado, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator. And with strict limits on their time, some aides say they work unpaid overtime.

In 2015, Colorado lawmakers voted to raise the base pay for state senators and representatives. That came into effect for some lawmakers in 2019, raising their pay from $30,000 to $40,242. But the legislature froze those raises for others during the pandemic

Pay for both lawmakers and staff varies widely across the country. On the high end, California lawmakers make about $115,000 per year, and many of their aides make roughly $50,000. California has a full-time legislature, while Colorado lawmakers only meet for four months of the year.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The state Capitol, Denver, Wednesday, Jan 20, 2021.

Next steps for the organizing aides

The Colorado guild organizers argue that more pay for aides will help the whole legislature, in part by allowing them to stay on the job longer and build institutional knowledge. But they haven’t named a specific request for a higher wage.

“As it stands now, legislators have to make do with a $15-an-hour worker who is their main and often exclusive employee,” Burley said.

Now that they’ve made their effort public, the guild members will wait to see what reaction they get from lawmakers. On Tuesday, Democratic leaders said they wanted to support their aides.

“I think for a long time there’s been a conversation at the Capitol to make sure our aides actually are able to make a living wage, and we’re having conversations now about what that looks like,” said House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar. “We know that our aides are a tremendous benefit to all of the state of Colorado, and we want to support them.”

The possibilities include paying a higher wage or allowing a greater number of hours, she said.

Republican leaders are part of that discussion, too. Republican House Minority Leader Hugh McKean is “involved in an ongoing, bipartisan discussion about increased pay,” wrote spokesperson Isabelle Daigle in an email.