Two of the expected sponsors of a paid family and medical leave program have withdrawn their names from the proposed bill, but the bill's sponsor and long-time advocate, Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, told reporters Monday she plans to soldier on.
Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, and Rep. Monica Duran, D-Wheat Ridge, said early Monday that the bill in its current form "does not deliver a benefit to the vast majority who tend to work in low-wage jobs that often lack stability. [We] represent those who come from the most marginalized communities and who are most likely to suffer job losses when they take time to care for themselves and their families. [We] believe strongly in Paid Family Medical Leave in principle but are struggling with many of the details.”
Williams later told Colorado Politics that her concern is for the lowest-wage workers and people of color.
Winter disagreed with that. "There are many things in this bill that are directly geared toward low-income workers," she said. All part-time workers have access to family leave, for example. "If you're working two or three minimum wage jobs, each of those jobs provides leave." Another aspect is "progressive" wage replacement. "If you're a minimum wage worker and the wage replacement is only 60%, you can't afford to live on that. In our bill, it's 90% wage replacement," which she said would be the highest in the nation.
One of the more contentious issues is on the definition of family. For immigrant or LGBTQ families, where someone is not related by blood, the bill allows for a "blood-like" financial relationship. Another issue that has yet to be resolved is the length of service before an employee is eligible for leave, which varies between three and six months.
Winter described the current proposal in detail with reporters Monday. The program would be a guaranteed benefit, meaning it would be mandatory for businesses with 20 or more employees, and businesses would buy the plans in the private market, a provision favored by the governor. The Division of Insurance would set rates, and they would be community-based, not based on industry, which was a concern for hospitals and education centers. In a community-based rate system, Winter said, everyone gets charged the same.
The proposal also would be guaranteed issuance, meaning an insurance company could not turn down someone who wants to buy. To make that work, there's a risk pool, to make sure insurance companies that lose money on the program are made whole. "It's fair, affordable and accessible to everyone who needs it," she explained.
There's a couple of phase-ins with the program, Winter explained. One is that in the first iteration, businesses with 20 employees or more would be required to participate. By 2025, that would drop down to businesses with 10 or more employees. In 2026, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment would hold a rulemaking hearing to determine how to go to universal coverage, which would includes businesses of any size as well as seasonal workers, such as in agriculture or the ski industry, which are carved out in the current proposal. "It is unfortunate that seasonal workers are not in this bill. I would call out Colorado Ski Country and the ag lobby and ask why they don't want their workers in."
There will be fines for companies that don't comply, including a hotline that will be easier for a low-wage worker to call than to file a complaint with the labor department. "We're working really hard to make sure the most marginalized do have access to this. It's important to us," she said.
To the question of why it's so hard to get something like this passed, Winter said "it's difficult to pass a bill like this because it impacts every person in the state. And because it impacts all Coloradans, it means everyone has an interest in it.
"I'm not taking time off until I pass this," Winter said.
"We continue to wake up every day" and work hard to see that paid family leave is passed, she said. While she was pessimistic about the bill's chances when she spoke to the Denver Post earlier in the day — she was quoted as being tearful — Winter said since then she has met with leadership and that she's resilient. "The gift of time and planning and support from my caucus" has made the difference, she explained.
Winter and likely House sponsor Rep. Matt Gray, D-Broomfield, issued a statement Monday afternoon that said “we are fully committed to passing a paid family and medical leave program this year...This is a very complex policy; we are still working to find the right solution, and we won’t stop until we get there. Too many Coloradans are fearful that one unforeseen event could upend their entire lives and their carefully laid plans for the future. Guaranteeing paid family and medical leave and the economic security it provides will give more Coloradans the fair shot they deserve."
The Working Families Party, however, laid the blame for the bill's problems at the feet of Gov. Jared Polis.
In a statement, WPP director Wendy Howell said the only person who has failed Colorado today is Polis. "Throughout negotiations around the paid family & medical leave bill this year, our Governor has demanded that the policy be radically redefined from previous years into a program that is for-profit, untested, not inclusive, and ultimately unworkable. His efforts flew in the face of the recommendations of policy experts, bill sponsors, experiences in other states, and even the recommendations the FAMLI Task Force made just a few short months ago. Had the Governor not attempted to place his thumb on the scale of the legislative work on this issue in such a heavy-handed and destructive way, today we would likely be talking about a paid family & medical leave bill instead of wondering if one will even be introduced."
Howell and the Working Families Party are the proponents of a ballot measure on paid family and medical leave that was approved by the Title Board last week. Its next step is petition approval.
Hunter Railey of the Small Business Majority was involved in the discussions over the 2020 version, and told Colorado Politics Monday that they were "a little shocked" by Williams and Duran withdrawing from the bill. "But at the same time we're optimistic that Duran and Williams had the courage of their convictions and spoke up for marginalised workers and employees. Making sure they were part of any bill that moves forward was a core priority," Railey said.
The 2020 version was expected to look a lot different from the 2019 bill, which as introduced would have provided up to 12 weeks of paid leave for employees. That leave would allow employees to take care of family issues, such as adoption and birth, and to take care of ill family members. The program would be state-run and mandatory.
But the bill ran into heavy opposition from business groups, including those that represent companies that already provide more generous paid leave benefits and feared they would either have to end their existing programs, which they cited as an incentive to hire and retain employees, or pay for two programs.
Senate Bill 188 was changed to require a task force examine the issue and come up with recommendations. Gov. Jared Polis weighed in during the fall with a letter recommending a market-based approach, although still a mandatory program.
The task force presented their recommendations to the General Assembly at the start of the 2020 session. They supported a state-run program and a carve-out for employers who offer an identical or more robust leave program. But they failed to agree on how much leave, ranging from six to 14 weeks, and whether to exempt certain kinds of businesses, based on size.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker raised the issue of whether the program will be constitutional and might also run afoul of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR). Holbert has managed small businesses before, including one with just five employees, and said a paid leave program wouldn't work for a business that small.
He said his caucus has not seen any of the language for either the paid leave or public option bills. But what was proposed last year was beyond the state's budget capabilities, based on a fee, which he views as a tax, on every employee and employer in the state.
"If there isn't a fee/tax proposed, we like that," Holbert said.