DENVER (AP) — Colorado voters will decide whether to create a state program mandating paid family and medical leave for workers across all industries and income levels — with supporters saying the coronavirus has made such a program essential and opponents countering they can’t afford it in an economy disrupted by the pandemic.
If voted into law, the program would start in 2023 and cover 12 to 16 weeks of paid leave for workers to care for a sick family member, to recover from an illness, to care for a newborn or other reasons.
Employers and workers initially would each contribute about .45% of a worker’s income to a state fund run by the Department of Labor and Employment, which would pay partial wages to those taking leave. For an average Denver resident earning $52,000 a year, this would translate to a combined $9 weekly deduction.
Colorado Families First, the group behind the ballot initiative, says that 2.6 million Coloradans would benefit. Eight states and Washington, D.C., have approved legislation to create such programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Supporters say a $1.3 billion Colorado fund would support low-income workers who typically don’t have access to paid leave. They also argue the program would help close racial economic gaps.
U.S. Census Bureau data show that employees of color are less likely to work in jobs offering paid leave in different wage groups. Of those earning below $11 an hour, 55.3% of white workers had access to paid leave, compared to 31.2% of Hispanic and 6.8% of Black workers. For the highest wage-earners, the difference is greater, with white workers at 85.8%, Hispanic workers at 7.3% and Black workers at 1.6%.
“This program that we have is really designed to give everybody that leg up,” said Kathy White, deputy director of the Colorado Fiscal Institute, which has lobbied to create a leave program.
“Providing a benefit where people can take care of themselves when they are sick or they can care for a loved one when they are sick — then those benefits of being able to do that accrue to those families and it’s going to disproportionately benefit people of color who are disadvantaged more at this point,” White said.
The pandemic has worsened economic burdens on workers already struggling to make ends meet, making a Colorado paid leave program essential, said Democratic state Sen. Faith Winter.
“The coronavirus has shown that overnight we could all need a benefit that we didn’t think we’d ever need,” Winter said.
Winter and other Democratic lawmakers tried to pass a paid family leave bill in 2019 but ran into strong opposition from business chambers. Winter said some 211 lobbyists were registered to fight it.
Inspired by the pandemic, lawmakers in June passed legislation requiring employers provide at least six days of paid sick leave starting in 2021 — and 16 days during a declared public health emergency.
Tony Gagliardi, Colorado director for the National Federation of Independent Business, says firms trying to survive in the pandemic cannot afford a state-mandated program. Citing NFIB data, Gagliardi predicts that business failures will exceed the 1.5 million businesses lost nationally between 2008 and 2010 during the Great Recession.
“Businesses are just now trying to get their footholds back. And we’re asking them to reopen, try to get back to normal, and then we’re going to lay a $1.3 billion program on them,” Gagliardi said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, a former tech entrepreneur, has expressed concerns about the proposal’s finances. He’s said he wants to involve the private sector in efforts to expand paid leave.
One of the biggest opponents is the Colorado Chamber of Commerce, which represents hundreds of businesses throughout the state. Loren Furman, a senior vice president at the chamber, said she has tried to negotiate terms of a paid leave program for six years.
Furman said the organization sought eligibility similar to the Family Medical Leave Act, a federal law passed in 1993 that allows employees with at least 1,250 hours worked up to 12 weeks of unpaid protected leave for the same reasons as the Colorado ballot measure.
However, the FMLA doesn’t cover everyone. Employers with less than 50 employees are not required to follow the law and employees who haven’t worked the required number of hours aren’t protected.
Furman said that a “one-size-fits-all” program would hurt small businesses, especially those with a specialized workforce in which employees taking leave can be more difficult and expensive to replace.
“Just having somebody come in and replace a worker who might be gone for 12 to 16 weeks is not a simple proposal, and trying to find that person that would have the same skillset is nearly impossible,” Furman said.
Winter points out that the state program would be optional for employers with their own paid leave set-ups that meet the minimum requirements. Businesses with fewer than 10 employees are exempt from paying the employer half. Local governments can also opt out, but their employees can choose to participate.