Denver public school teachers on the verge of strike

For the past year, teachers in the Denver public school system have negotiated with administrators over a new bargained agreement covering their employment with little success. As the current CBA reaches expiration on January 18, employees face a strike vote on the following day. If Denver teachers vote to strike it may leave Denver public schools with the choice to close schools temporarily, replace teachers with short term replacements or bargain to give its teachers appropriate compensation. The final negotiation sessions before the strike take place this week ahead of the expiration of the current CBA. The teachers’ union has already informed the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment of its intent to strike, as required by the Colorado Peace Act.

Denver teachers currently receive compensation through a complicated formula of base salary and bonuses. The existing collective bargaining agreement, like many educational CBAs, includes lanes for salary compensation that reward teachers for continued education and tenure in addition to cost of living adjustments. Additionally, Denver teachers receive bonuses based upon several additional factors, such as teaching in underserved areas and school performance. The bonuses are funded from a local tax initiative for this purpose. Any bargained agreement lacking these bonuses will result in losing access to that revenue for teacher compensation. This compensation program is known as ProComp.

Downtown Denver, Colorado

The divide between the Denver teachers’ union and Denver Public Schools

The Denver Public School system and the Denver teachers’ union (Denver Classroom Teachers Association) remain at odds over several basic issues. The Denver teachers’ union wants to increase funding for compensation, simply the compensation structure, move more funding into base pay rather than bonuses and create salary lanes making it possible for ambitious teachers to earn $100,000 in compensation. The Denver Public School system, like any employer, wants to add far less to teacher pay and maintain the bonus structure. This represents an extremely common divide in labor law negotiations.

The Denver teachers’ union is not fighting for more pay for the sake of simply increasing member compensation. Denver teachers are underpaid compared to surrounding districts and face higher costs of living to live in the same district where they teach–even with regular cost of living pay adjustments. This has the result of driving successful teachers out of Denver schools and into other surrounding Colorado districts. It also causes many teachers to have to live outside of Denver, increasing their commute and diminishing their ownership of the success of their schools. The lack of financial predictability in pay also makes it harder for teachers to plan appropriately for their financial future.

Denver school administrators talk a good game about wanting to improve these problems but so far fail to put enough of the district’s $1 billion budget towards one of its most important assets. Predictably school officials want to maintain a complex formula based on bonuses because it forces teachers to absorb the consequences of administrative failings by tying their compensation to school success. It also has the effect of reducing overall compensation by preventing teachers from accumulating an increasingly higher salary over time. 

These are not hypothetical problems justifying improving Denver teacher pay. Comparisons of compensation structures between Denver and other school districts reflects underpaid Denver teachers. The high turnover of teachers as they flee Denver for more pay is not hypothetical. It is a real and statistically proven problem. High turnover creates several problems for the Denver school district:

  • Schools lose institutional knowledge of the students at the school and loses long term bonds with the local community;
  • Teachers with the best qualifications are able to find better paying jobs elsewhere, lowering the quality of teachers remaining in the schools;
  • Tenure of teachers at Denver schools declines which reduces the level of experience from which younger teachers can learn;
  • The Denver district spends more resources recruiting and training teachers which are lost as teachers leave for other districts, making each teacher more expensive despite not increasing compensation; and
  • Teachers have less incentive to invest personally in the performance of the school when they expect to leave in a few years for another district.

Why Denver teachers should strike if Denver Public Schools cannot agree to a fair negotiation package

Denver teachers deserve a fair compensation structure for their work that reflects their value to the community. If teachers are expected to be professionals working in a major city then they should be appropriately compensated as such. Denver school administrators should treat the investment of public resources into recruiting and training teachers as an important investment in the city. A compensation structure that treats teachers as fungible and a burden to the city does not improve Denver schools.

Teachers in Denver should strike if a fair agreement cannot be reached. Denver school officials will feel no pressure to move the terms of their proposal as long as they feel teachers will eventually cave. A labor strike will put school officials on a clock to figure out how to deal with the problem or face a school district without teachers. It will also add publicity to the dispute and motivate parents to push the district towards finding a solution. Teachers around the country face similar problems (including the extremely similar situation currently in Los Angeles). Each union that strikes over unfair compensation will put the next district on notice that it needs to deal fairly with the union or face similar consequences.

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Wrongful termination attorneys in Colorado

Are paid 15 minute breaks required by law under Colorado labor law?

Colorado employees seek out the answer to this question with high frequency for good reason. Colorado is one of the states that has a labor and employment law that requires many employees to receive a paid break at work and gives employees legal remedies when employers refuse to provide legally required paid breaks. In this post we will discuss some of the legal issues around Colorado’s paid break law and when you might need to talk to an employment lawyer in Colorado if you do not receive paid breaks required by law. Before getting into those details, let’s get to a brief answer under Colorado law about paid 15 minute breaks. Under Colorado law, nonexempt employees are entitled to paid 10 minute breaks every four hours of work but not entitled to 15 minute paid breaks. Employee break laws involve both federal and state law so let’s take a look at how each affects employee rights to unpaid and paid breaks.

Federal law on paid breaks for employees

Federal law does not require paid breaks for employees but establishes minimum standards for whether breaks are paid or unpaid when they occur. The federal employment law that applies to most employees on the subject of breaks is the Fair Labor Standards Act. FLSA sets minimum wage conditions for covered, nonexempt employees in all states. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employees are not generally entitled to break periods at all. If, however, an employee receives a break period of less than twenty minutes then the employee must be paid for that break time. 

An important caveat under the FLSA applies to mothers who need break time to express milk. The PPACA created a specific break rule in this situation. The PPACA amended the FLSA under 29 U.S.C. section 207(r)(1) to require reasonable break time for mothers to express milk. This rule applies if:

  • The mother gave birth within the past year;
  • Is covered by the overtime protections of the FLSA;
  • The employer employees 50 or more employees; and
  • The employer cannot claim undue hardship to provide the required break time.

Under the FLSA amendment the break period for expressing milk does not have to be paid; however, if the employer provides breaks under twenty minutes and that break time is used for expressing milk then it must be paid like any other paid break under FLSA.

Federal law provides for a wide range of unpaid break or rest periods to employees under different circumstances. These include:

  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) covered leave;
  • Leave as an accommodation for a disability;
  • Required rest for transportation workers; and
  • Pregnancy leave under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

The FLSA does not require employers to provide unpaid rest periods for lunches but if an employer provides a rest period greater than twenty minutes then it is not required to pay for that time so long as the employee is truly relieved of all work on behalf of the employer.

Colorado labor and employment laws on paid breaks

Colorado law specifically requires paid and unpaid break periods for employees covered by the state wage law. Colorado has other state laws that require unpaid break periods for particular purposes like family leave or as an accommodation for a disability; but let’s focus on how Colorado law expands on the FLSA for both paid and unpaid break periods under the normal work day.

Like federal law, Colorado labor laws protect break periods for employees covered by the state wage law. If you are exempt from this law then state law does not require employers to provide typical break or lunch periods. Most employees are covered by Colorado wage law under the Colorado Wage Act, found in Title 8 of the Colorado Revised Statutes.

The rules for typical breaks under Colorado law arise under Colorado Minimum Wage Order 34 and require:

  • A paid 10 minute break in the middle of each four hour work period as practical as possible to place the break in the middle of the four hour work period;
  • An unpaid 30 minute break or lunch when the work schedule exceeds five consecutive hours, if practical;
    • If not practical then the employer must allow the employee an opportunity to each a meal of choice on the clock whether provided by the employer or employee.

An employer can require the employee to stay on work premises during the paid ten minute break but not during the longer unpaid lunch period.

Colorado employment law

Putting federal and Colorado paid break laws together

Note that the Colorado Wage Act and the current Minimum Wage Order do not require paid 15 minute break periods although fifteen minutes is the standard break period for many employers. If an employer provides a fifteen minute break period then it must be paid for covered employees under the FLSA; but the employer only has to provide a ten minute period for covered employees under the Colorado Wage Act. Putting the two together for an employee covered by both federal and state minimum wage laws:

  • The employer must provide a paid 10 minute break every four hours;
  • The employer may extend the break period to 15 minutes;
  • If the employer extends the break period to 15 minutes then it must be a paid 15 minute break.

If you work under an individual employment contract or a collective bargaining agreement, the contract or agreement may provide additional requirements for rest periods.

Remedies against a Colorado employer for violating paid break requirements

Although federal and Colorado wage laws overlap and work together to establish minimum paid break rules, the remedies under each law are unique to the requirements of the respective law.

Federal law

Federal law only requires employers to pay for breaks of twenty minutes or less so when employees take these breaks they must count as compensable time in the day worked. The employee’s break time must count within the work hours and receive minimum wage and overtime pay for all compensable work time within the work week. An employer who fails to count compensable breaks within the workweek is liable for unpaid minimum wage and overtime pay (as appropriate).

Colorado law

Colorado law is more expansive in its protections because breaks are required for nonexempt employees. If the employee receives the required ten minute breaks but the employer does not include the breaks within compensable time then the employer is liable to the employee for unpaid wages and overtime pay (as appropriate) for the ten minute breaks. Here, federal and Colorado law is similar.

However, if the employee does not receive the breaks then the employee can pursue the employer for claims related to this violation of the Minimum Wage Order. Employees may not have tremendous claims if the employer only does not provide the required paid ten minute breaks but an employee could nevertheless pursue a claim for the violation. If the employer takes disciplinary action against an employee who demands due paid breaks then the employee may have a stronger claim against the employer for the effects of the disciplinary action. Employees have successfully sued for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy when employers terminate employees in retaliation for demanding the legally required break periods.

Talk to an employment lawyer in Colorado about your employee break rights

If you believe you are not receiving required break periods or not being properly paid for your breaks then you should talk to a Denver employment lawyer right away. Wage-based claims carry a statute of limitations period that applies to each pay period so delay working on your potential claims may limit your right to recover due wages. An employment lawyer can help assess your situation and whether you have claims to pursue against your employer. Recall that some employees are exempt from the break rules under federal and Colorado law. Demanding breaks not required by law or by an employment contract could result in losing your job with recourse. An employment lawyer can help assess whether you are entitled to breaks and what next steps may be available to you.