Despite a blizzard raging outside and authorities warning motorists to stay off the roads, Colorado Senate Democrats went forward with a committee hearing Wednesday at the state Capitol on a controversial bill on paid family and medical leave.
Senate Bill 188 -- known as the FAMLI Family Medical Leave Insurance Program -- would set up an insurance pool to provide partial wage replacement benefits to eligible workers who need to take time off work. The measure would primarily benefit low-wage workers.
It cleared the Senate Business, Labor & Technology Committee on a party-line 3-2 vote and was sent on to the Senate Finance Committee.
Many of those who wanted to testify heeded the weather warnings and stayed away, knowing that they wouldn’t have their views heard before the Senate panel.
That included the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and its affiliated Colorado Competitiveness Council (C3), which issued a statement during the hearing.
“Despite not being able to safely testify at the hearing today, [we] stand opposed to Senate Bill 188, the Family and Medical Leave Insurance program, on behalf of [our] members," said Kelly Brough, the chamber's president and CEO.
"This afternoon, Senate leadership committed to moving forward with a hearing today for Senate Bill 188 in the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee, although many stakeholders are unable to safely travel to the Capitol to participate in the hearing – a move that minimizes the voices of stakeholders and concerns the business community," the statement said. "Despite hundreds of closures across the Denver metro region, the hearing is planned to move forward with or without robust stakeholder input.
"Our members care deeply about their employees and teams," the statement added. "That’s why they already provide paid leave, they’re committed to a solution on FAMLI leave and also why they won’t put their safety at risk by testifying today at the Capitol."
C3 Director Nick Colglazier added that “despite our agreement with the aim of Senate Bill 188, we harbor deep reserve over the mechanics of a one-size-fits-all, statewide mandate on every business – and every employee – in Colorado. While we will continue to engage on this issue, due to today’s weather, it is neither the time nor the place.”
Those who were unable to testify in person were encouraged to submit testimony by email. Committee Chair Sen. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, said during the hearing they had received about 100 emails.
Those who sent in emails opposed to the bill included the Colorado Municipal League, the National Federation of Independent business, Colorado chapter; the county commissions of Arapahoe and Mesa counties; the Colorado Retail Council; Colorado Restaurant Association; Colorado Ski Country USA; and the Colorado Chamber of Commerce.
Those who favored the bill included the Colorado Women's Foundation, Colorado Children's Campaign and Raise Colorado and numerous individuals.
One witness who did make it to the hearing was Haven Rohnert, a volunteer with the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition and a Safeway employee. Rohnert said he believes the program would help people like him who struggle when they have a medical emergency.
“I risked becoming homeless” to have a second epilepsy surgery, he told the committee. He said he thought the surgery would require that he take three weeks off work, but it wound up being 2-1/2 months away.
Rohnert said he was fortunate in being able to financially prepare for being off work that long, but the long absence from work still put him into financial straits. He used all his sick, vacation and personal time off for his absence, he said, and only a successful GoFundMe campaign and a $500 loan kept him from losing his home.
Those who have accidents and can’t prepare for emergencies may have to rely on food stamps or supplemental Social Security income to survive, he said. “I was lucky" because he had people who cared for him. “For too many people there’s no one ... If I wasn’t fortunate everything would have been torn away from me.”
Under SB 188, the state Department of Labor and Employment would set up a paid family and medical leave insurance program, with a monthly premium, paid for with equal contributions from both employees and employers based on employee wages.
The program would begin on July 1, 2020, with first payouts available on January 1, 2022, according to its fiscal analysis.
Those eligible for the leave program would include someone with a serious health condition (defined as inpatient hospitalization or ongoing treatment); a person caring for a newborn, an adopted child, or a child placed through foster care for the first year; caring for a family member with a serious health condition; and circumstances related to a family member's active military duty.
The bill also allows those fleeing domestic violence, sexual assault or sexual abuse to take advantage of the program.
The fiscal analysis estimates that almost $1 billion per year would be paid by employees and employers into the fund by 2021-22.
The premium would be 0.64 percent of an employee’s pay for the first 18 months, according to the fiscal analysis. Similar to Social Security, the premiums would be capped at $132,900, meaning the premium would not be levied once an employee has earned that amount for the year.
However, the bill also requires that for 2023 and 2024, the state Department of Labor and Employment would be required to levy premiums equal to 150 percent of the prior year’s claims and 100 percent of the administrative costs. In 2025 and thereafter, the premium would set at a rate necessary to raise 125 to 150 percent of the prior year’s claims and all of its administrative costs.
Somewhat similar to payouts under short-term disability, the benefits paid under the FAMLI Act would be less than 100 percent of the employee’s wages, and the more an employee makes, the smaller the percentage of the benefit.
For example, an employee who takes home $500 per week would be eligible for a $450 per week payout for a maximum of 12 weeks, with a two-week waiting period. An employee paid $2,000 per week would get $1,000 per week, the maximum benefit under the program.
But Gini Pingenot of Colorado Counties Inc. told the committee she didn't think the fiscal analysis is accurate as to the program's cost.