Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Students help change Colorado wage law

When the law didn’t seem to meet the needs of clients coming into the Sturm College of Law’s clinic, Visiting Professor Wendy Hickey’s students did something about it.

They set out to change the law.

Hickey’s DU law clinic classes spent a year researching and then pressing for a new state law to help workers fight back against employers who illegally withhold wages. The result, House Bill 1247, was sponsored by Denver Democratic State Rep. Joel Judd and wound its way through committee hearings, the halls of Capitol Hill, floor votes and then onto Gov. Bill Ritter’s desk.

Gov. Ritter signed the bill into law on May 31.

Eight second- and third-year students helped craft the language, testified at hearings, helped clients from the law clinic testify before House committees and wrangled with lawmakers in the Capitol’s hallways.

“It was an effort in itself to find someone to sponsor it,” student Eric Grijalva says. “You go down to the Capitol and do what lobbyists do, which is pretty much ‘stalk the legislature.’”

The students had support from Judd — who had handled similar legislation in the past — and a boost from Rep. Terrance Carroll (JD ’05), D-Denver, and Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder. The group also got plenty of help from veteran lobbyist Pat Steadman, who says the students’ ability to bring real individuals who had sought help at Sturm’s clinic “helped put a human face on the beneficiaries of the bill.”

Hickey says that while an earlier class identified the need and did a lot of the early legwork, it was this semester’s class that found itself scrambling to find support for the measure with just a week left to file bills for the session.

“It all happened really fast,” she says. “There was a lot of work, and they put a lot into this.”

Students tag-teamed legislators, working in shifts walking the hallways and cornering lawmakers to pitch the bill between classes and work at the University’s law clinic.

“Everything takes place outside the committee rooms,” Grijalva says. “A lot of the conversations end up taking place before anything gets to committee.”

Student Ashley Pollock says a key part of working Capitol Hill is learning to build relationships with people in power.

“At first, you’re just a tourist,” Grijalva says.

Judd says the students’ work was very helpful in the end — especially their real-life experience with clients from the clinic. As it turned out, the bill ran into plenty of interest from the business community and from Gov. Ritter’s staff counsel. Students worked with the governor’s office to iron out some of the sticking points and learned that compromise is a big part of changing law.

In its final version, the bill strengthens incentives for employers to pay due wages to employees in a timely manner and increases penalties for employers who willfully withhold pay.

In the end, Judd (JD ’75) says he’s pleased with the results.

“It’s a pretty good product,” he says. “I think it does a good job in terms of what the students were interested in.”

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