Coronavirus is making the case for paid leave that the politicians couldn’t.
Every response plan I’ve seen has included a way to make sure those who can’t work because of illness or caring for a loved one can still cover their bills after payday.
You can call necessity the mother of invention, or you can call it mission creep, but sick time and paid family leave are fast becoming an expected part of the workplace, like the 40-hour week and holidays off.
Jared Make, the Denver-based vice president of the national workers advocacy group A Better Balance, was a member of a legislatively created task force to study paid family and medical leave over the last year.
"To me it really underscores why there's such an incredible need," he said.
This time of uncertainty is certainly raising the public conscience on how workers get by when they're unable to work. Nearly a quarter of American workers have no paid leave at all, and they tend to be the lowest paid.
Until the governor's emergency order last week, Colorado had no local or state law requiring sick time.
Conversations about the benefit have moved back to the policy front burner from Denver to D.C., as the crisis threatens to leave fissures of inequality between the rich and the poor, labor and management.
HR 6021, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, is a piece of legislation hammered out by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and tacitly endorsed by President Trump. The bill passed the House on a remarkable 363-40 vote in the wee hours of Saturday morning.
U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, who chairs the state Republican Party, voted no, saying the government once again is throwing money at a complex problem.
The Senate passed it 90-8 Wednesday and the president quickly signed it into law, providing two weeks of paid sick leave. Sen. Cory Gardner supported the bill but sat out the vote on sick leave, self-quarantined, as it were.
“Congress must move heaven and earth to protect American workers by providing them with immediate financial assistance and make sure workers and businesses can get through this crisis,” the Republican senator said in a statement after the vote.
Advocates want more than a stopgap solution, however.
"The conversation needs to continue," Make told me. "This extra urgency is only the beginning, it only shows the inequities that are always there."
Eight states and the District of Columbia provide paid family leave for extended illnesses and care.
In Colorado, Democrats have tried for six years to pass a paid family leave insurance program at the statehouse. The left controls the General Assembly votes and it has a willing governor, though one who calls himself a libertarian and wants private insurers — not state taxpayers — to underwrite the deal.
Original supporters are frustrated by the private model. The program is in doubt in a truncated session during an election year.
Yet, Democrats are disjointed with big-dollar business interests aligned against expanding workers' leave.
A global pandemic is bad, but so is a child with a cancer diagnosis or a dying parent. Like politics, all catastrophes are local.
The coronavirus accommodation could sway public opinion in November.
Two proposed ballot measures that offer 12 or 16 weeks of paid leave, respectively, are tied up in the state Supreme Court. They’re backed by the progressive Colorado Working Families Party, which has deep-pocketed liberal financiers.
Paid time off divides sympathies between workers and small business owners, however.
Gardner tried to divide the baby in the national emergency earlier in the week.
"Millions of hospitality employees across Colorado must know they will be ok which is why I support creating a special COVID-19 employee designation that will provide immediate financial assistance to employees without punishing the small businesses that employ them," the Republican tweeted.
Two hours earlier, Gardner posted, "Hospitality employees need to know that hotels, bars & restaurants will survive through this crisis. Which is why I support establishing a financial assistance fund that could provide grants, low-interest loans & employee retention tax credits to ensure these businesses survive."
Last week when the Colorado Politics staff fanned out to talk to policymakers about governing beneath the cloud of coronavirus, my colleague Alayna Alvarez contacted Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech, who called paid family leave her No. 1 concern.
“It is literally a choice between losing your income, maybe your housing, or your job for those penalized for absences, or following medical advice to stay home for many of these workers,” she said in a quote Alayna shared with me to suggest this column. “There is another path. Many cities and states require employers to offer paid sick days, and I regret that our community wasn’t ready to make that commitment in 2011.
“Even if and when corona virus (sic) fades, our awareness is now raised about the vulnerability of seniors, the widespread impact of perennial illnesses like colds and the flu, and the risks of folks coming to work sick. We need paid family and medical leave for long term illnesses, and paid sick days for shorter term ones.”