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Statewide Paid Family Leave Could Have 'Incredibly Positive Outcomes' For Colorado

Matthias Zomer

Under existing law, Americans can take up to 12 weeks off from work -- unpaid -- when they have a new child, need to care for a loved one or are recovering from a serious health condition.

But there's a push in Colorado and nationally to make that family leave paid, and it's gaining bipartisan support according to Denver University assistant professor Jennifer Greenfield. She's an advisor to the Bipartisan Policy Center's Paid Family Leave Task Force, and she recently spoke with KUNC's Kyra Buckley.

Interview Highlights

Kyra Buckley: Colorado has tried to pass paid family leave a few times. In that proposal, it would be a program employees pay for through payroll deductions. What have other states done?

Jennifer Greenfield: There are a handful of states that have already passed programs like this. We have states like California , that's had a plan in place for more than a decade now. Also New Jersey and now New York, etcetera.

There have been millions of people who've been able to take advantage, and they've seen incredibly positive outcomes from it, and businesses have seen positive impacts or neutral impacts.

Workers who take leave through the California plan have higher incomes months or years after they've taken that leave than workers who did not have paid leave available. They are more likely to return to work at their income and be able to get the promotions and raises they would have been on track for.

The folks who didn't have paid leave are really set back in terms of their long-term financial security. In Colorado, if we were to pass a program in our state, we have other states to look to, other evidence to draw from to show that its really not costing the state very much, its really not costing workers and employers very much -- and there's very low levels of fraud and abuse.

Buckley: You argue for an inclusive policy. What does that look like?

Greenfield: We know we need to have some kind of a benefit available to parents of newborns or newly-adopted children, and there's really strong evidence that shows parental engagement is really critical in those first weeks and months of a baby's life or of a life of child in an adoptive family.

But we also have growing evidence that when leave isn't available to workers with other types of caregiving responsibilities, they end up often having to reduce their work hours or actually leave their jobs in order to manage the caregiving. This in turn has really significant consequences for those workers' long-term financial security. What we find time and time again is, when you're faced with the choice with between losing a family member or losing a job -- those are both dire choices, but no one is going to choose to lose their loved one.

The challenge we have is how do we find a way the worker can state afloat financially while they're doing that incredibly important work of helping a child, or a spouse, or a parent, go through treatment or manage that health concern.

Buckley: There's so many things in the news right now -- like trade, immigration, stagnant wages. How would you respond to someone who says paid family leave just isn't important enough right now?

Greenfield: We know that working families are unbelievably stretched. More and more families are living paycheck to paycheck, they're struggling with childcare costs, rising housing costs, student loan debt, etcetera, and meanwhile we have new studies coming out showing that wages have just remained stagnant over the last several decades.

These are incredibly big issues that need to be addressed, but in the meantime initiatives like paid family leave can help families that have that extra challenge of a health crisis or a new child, help them maintain their income while they take a little time off of work.

After their conversation, Florida's Republican Sen. Marco Rubio announced his proposal for a national paid family leave program. It would be optional and funded through Social Security.