Pueblo teachers are cleared to strike after state regulators decline to intervene

Teachers in Pueblo could be on strike as soon as Monday after the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment declined to intervene in a dispute between that district and its unions.

Members of the Pueblo Education Association and the Pueblo Paraprofessional Education Association in the southern Colorado city voted to strike last month after the school board rejected pay raises. Under Colorado law, the unions filed notice of their intent to strike with state regulators, who had the option to intervene to mediate the dispute.

In a ruling issued Wednesday afternoon, Alexandra Hall, director of the state Division of Labor Standards and Statistics, said neither party had submitted a proper request for intervention, and in light of that fact, the division would not intervene.

Because the unions have already filed their notice of intent to strike, there are no legal barriers to the teachers walking off the job at this point, state officials said.

“If circumstances change, we will re-evaluate them,” Hall wrote. “If all parties ask us to intervene to assist in resolving the remaining economic issues, we will.

“We are mindful of the practical disruption of a strike at the end of a school year, especially for graduating high school seniors. The chief responsibility for such disruption rests with the PEA, PPEA, and School District, and we urge them to keep working toward a resolution of this dispute.”

Teacher strikes are rare in Colorado. Denver teachers walked off the job in 1994. Pueblo teachers have never struck before, though they came close in 1998, when state regulators did mediate a resolution. The department’s decision comes less than a week after thousands of teachers rallied at the Capitol for more school funding, an event that was not a strike because teachers used their personal leave to engage in political activity.

In her decision, Hall said she didn’t think the tools available to the division, such as mediation or arbitration, would make a difference at this time.

Pueblo teachers union president Suzanne Ethredge said teachers plan to be on strike starting Monday. They’ll be picketing at several schools, along main roads in Pueblo, and at the district’s administrative offices. Ethredge said they’re hoping for a swift resolution. 

“We are certainly hoping it is days and not weeks,” she said. “We hope no more than three to five days.”

Teachers and paraprofessionals in the district want the school board to agree to an independent fact finder’s recommendation for 2 percent cost-of-living raises and an additional $30 a month toward health insurance premiums. Teachers in the district earned an average of $47,617 this year, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

Ethredge said the dispute goes beyond pay, though. Educators want more of a voice in decisions that affect their classrooms, she said.

“We understand it is a disruption, and it’s an unfortunate step that we wish we had not had to take,” she said. “We believe for the long-term health of the district, we need to do this. Educator voices have not been heard on decisions that affect classrooms and students. We hope that, although drastic, the strike will help break that cycle.”

In a statement sent via email, spokesperson Dalton Sprouse said district officials believe the Department of Labor could have asserted jurisdiction for the sake of the public interest. Officials also suggested there could be raises next year.

“We believe that in the 2018-2019 school year, our finances will be more stable, and one that would allow us to provide additional compensation to all employees,” the statement said. “In the event of a strike we will make every effort to continue our educational programming where possible and will take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of our students. We will continue to work to resolve this dispute as soon as possible.”

Since the strike vote on April 20, Pueblo teachers have staged a series of “sick-outs” that have closed at least one school every day, a district spokesman said.

In an email sent earlier Wednesday, before the state ruling, district officials warned teachers that using sick leave in this way was not an allowed use and said that teachers who don’t show up to work will lose both pay and health insurance benefits for those days.

“Effective immediately, members of the professional staff who use excused leave to participate in either ‘sick-outs’ or a strike will be subject to a full salary deduction for each day of absence based on the staff member’s current daily rate of pay,” the email said. “Also, during any period of salary deduction, staff members will be subject to a suspension of benefits.”

This story has been updated to add comments from union president Suzanne Ethredge and district spokesperson Dalton Sprouse.