On Your Ballot: Should Colorado Create An Expansive Paid Family Leave Program?
Attempts to create a state-run paid family leave benefit by lawmakers have repeatedly stalled. Now, advocates are asking voters directly to decide if the program is right for Colorado.
If passed, Proposition 118 would have non-federal workers and employers pay into a fund to allow workers to take up to 12 weeks off to care for family or a newborn and deal with other needs, like getting medical treatment or recovering from domestic violence, and still get paid up to 90% of their salaries ($1,100 a week at most).
Proponents say the amount workers and employers pay into the program would be negligible (premiums cap at 1.2% of a worker's wages) and would create much-needed peace of mind for many workers. Opponents argue that the proposal is clearly a tax increase and is unconstitutional because it is not presented as such on the ballot. They also say it would be too much of a burden on businesses, and have concerns about whether the fund would be solvent.
KUNC's Capitol reporter Scott Franz and associate professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work Jennifer Greenfield joined Colorado Edition to explain why people are for and against the proposal, how the proposition ended up on the ballot and what is known about states that already have programs like this.
Read the highlights below or listen to the full segment above.
These highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Scott, could you walk us through the basics of Proposition 118? What program would it create, and how would the state pay for it?
Franz: Of course. So it would create a new statewide paid leave program that would let workers take up to 12 weeks off to care for a newborn, care for a sick relative, recover from domestic violence. And to do that, almost every worker in the state would pay a premium along with their employer; it would be shared between the employer and their workers.
The big difference between the federal programs we have is this would be paid time off, and when someone is doing all of these things, they would still be able to collect a paycheck, up to 90% of their wages, or up to about $1,100 per week would be a maximum benefit.
Paid family leave is an initiative that lawmakers have been considering for some time. How did this get on the November ballot?
Franz: Well, lawmakers really struggled with this one — it was a big political battle for several years. Democrats at the Capitol were advancing plans year after year, and it was really concerns from the business community, and more recently Gov. Jared Polis, that kept this from becoming law.
And a lot of the concerns are about costs: the costs to businesses, whether it’s universal, whether it’s run by the state, so it ended up as a ballot initiative after lawmakers failed to really get on the same page about what kind of program they wanted, and the advocates of this were tired of the inaction at the Capitol, and gathered enough signatures to put this question to voters and the people who would be paying for it.
I can imagine voters hearing that word — taxes — and wondering what exactly that means. Jennifer Greenfield, you’ve researched potential economic impacts. Explain what that looks like, and what some of the variables are in determining how much this program will cost taxpayers.
Jennifer Greenfield: The way that the program is designed, it’s really a shared cost between workers and employers. Workers and employers would contribute at the start, less than half a percentage of their average weekly wages, so those would go into a fund that is managed by the state, and then workers could file claims if they have any of the approved reasons why they might need to take leave.
So that fund is really functioning like an insurance program, but it’s run by the state so it’s social insurance, and it would be fully funded by these premiums that are payed by the workers and the employers.
What about small businesses, with only a few skilled employees? Would a policy like this benefit large employers which have more flexibility when someone takes leave, and hurt small employers who don't have that? What impact would this change have on small businesses?
Greenfield: I think one of the things that I hear most often from the small business owners that I’ve spoken with, is that having a universal program like this that they can pay into, it’s actually a relatively small premium that they pay in, and then when their worker needs to take time off, whether they’re become injured, developed an illness, or a family member has, the employer basically saves their salary for the weeks or months that the worker is out, and can use that to compensate other workers for overtime, or to hire a temp worker or something like that.
And so it’s a benefit that’s actually very difficult for small business owners to provide on their own, when they have to fully self-fund that worker's time off while also covering their work. And so paying the small premium into this state-run fund actually helps those small businesses to be able to take care of workers who are sick, and to get the job done at work.
So what we see in the research in states that already have a program like this is that employers find that their productivity goes up among workers when they’re not on leave, their loyalty increases, and so they have fewer turnover costs because workers come back and they’re so grateful to have that time off and be able to come right back to work, so it actually ends up having a huge benefit, and business owners report being very happy with a program once it’s in place. So I think that we can anticipate that there would actually be some very positive outcomes in this if it is implemented.
Scott, Do you have a sense of how Colorado's business community is feeling about this proposal?
Franz: Right, you know there have been a lot of Chambers of Commerce, for example, that are not supporting it based on what they're hearing from some of their businesses. They worry about added bureaucracy, businesses having to meet more requirements, the financial impact. And then also, the impact of not having workers there.
On the flip side, you know I have heard lots of stories from workers who have testified that you know they've had to make decisions, like whether to keep a parent on life, support from their workplace and really, these very emotional situations that you know they tried to get time off for and couldn't because their employer said no. So, you know it's a complex issue, and one that is very personal for a lot of people.
We are of course talking about this measure during a global pandemic. Professor Greenfield, how does this change the impact of a potential paid family leave program?
Greenfield: I think that this has really shined a spotlight on how vulnerable we all are to getting sick, or to having a loved one suddenly stuck at home. I'm a parent of young kids and waiting for the day when my kids are suddenly in quarantine because someone in their school tested positive. So that unexpected injury or illness that can come up is something that we're suddenly all understanding could happen to us. This is why, I think, that we're seeing increased interest in paid leave across the country. We're seeing Congress talking about it. You know, we've had a number of states that already have implemented programs, and momentum was already building.
But this is really, I think, exposing the vulnerability that we all have. It's not just about, having a new child. It's not just about having an aging parent we might need to take care of. We're all at risk of sometime getting some kind of catastrophic illness that we hadn't seen coming.
This conversation is from a special episode of KUNC’s Colorado Edition on Sep. 25. You can find the full episode here.