Paid Family Leave Survives Crucial Committee Vote After Major Revisions

<p>David Zalubowski/AP</p>
<p>The gold-covered dome on the State Capitol shines in the late afternoon sun in downtown Denver, Nov. 3, 2015.</p>
Photo: Colorado Capitol | Gold Dome In Trees - AP
The gold-covered dome on the State Capitol shines in the late afternoon sun in downtown Denver, Nov. 3, 2015.

It looks like the fifth time could be the charm for paid family leave.

For years, Democratic lawmakers have promised a program to let workers take paid time off to recover from a medical condition, welcome a newborn or care for a sick relative. Different versions have failed four times. After a major rewrite and crucial committee vote Tuesday, it looks like the proposal could become a reality this legislative session.

The Senate Finance Committee approved the plan for a statewide insurance program on a party-line vote Tuesday, with Democrats in favor. The bill's fate had been in doubt because of stiff opposition from some Colorado business groups.

During a marathon committee hearing, sponsors state Sen. Faith Winter and state Sen. Angela Williams, both Democrats, rolled out a series amendments meant to appease those organizations. They weren't necessarily happy about it.

"Every single time we met a new concern, ten more requests came in and the goal posts changed. But we are working in good faith to address those concerns," Winter said.

Much of how the benefit would work remains the same despite the changes. Under the plan, workers could ask the state to cover a portion of up to 12 weeks of lost wages. It'd be a progressive benefit, so lower-wage workers would have up to 90 percent of their salaries replaced, while a Coloradan making an average wage of about $50,000 per year would have about 70 percent of their wages reimbursed. Benefits would be capped at $1,000 per week.

The biggest changes lawmakers agreed to have to do with whether Colorado businesses must participate, and how they would share the cost with employees.

Under the earlier version, the state would have collected about $3-per-week from someone making $50,000 a year, with employers chipping in an equal amount. Those contributions would combine to .64 percent of each worker’s income, all of which would go into a statewide pool.

The amended plan shifts some of that burden from employers to employees. Now, 60 percent would come from workers’ paychecks, with employers chipping in the remaining 40 percent. It also allows local governments to opt out, as well as businesses that provide their own paid leave equivalent to the state benefit.

Other revisions removed job protections for seasonal workers and the possibility of a 4-week benefit extension for women who suffer birth or pregnancy complications.

Republicans also tried narrow the definition of "family" under the bill, which determines who workers could care for while receiving benefits. State Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Republican repsentative form Monument, sought to bring the language in line with the federal Family Medical Leave Act, but the sponsors objected, saying the definition is outdated and sometimes excludes LGBTQ relationships.

"Keep in mind, the federal plan was written in 1993, like 20-something years ago," said Sen. Williams. "The family unit has changed a lot since 1993."

Opponents say the new definition creates a huge administrative headache for businesses, which have already learned to comply with the federal definition.

In the end, the committee did limit the definition slightly. It now covers anyone a worker supports financially or on a day-to-day basis. The earlier bill said anyone with a "significant personal bond" with the worker would be eligible, which critics worried would open the door to abuse.

Democratic State Sen. Nancy Todd of Aurora was thought to be the crucial vote on the Finance Committee. Before casting her vote in approval, she said the continued effort by the sponsors to improve the bill, as well as an amendment to delay the program’s rollout to 2023, won her over.

"The fact that the implementation is not immediate is how I can vote 'yes' today," said Todd. "I will continue to ask difficult questions and I will continue to challenge to make sure we will be fiscally sound as we move forward."

Despite all that effort, those changes weren't enough to get some business leaders on board. Loren Furman, vice president with the Colorado Chamber of Commerce, said her organization wants to see more alignment with federal standards, more leeway for employers to provide their own plans, and some exceptions for small businesses. Any beyond that, she just has philosophical concerns with the idea.

“Everybody will have to pay a fee, a tax, a premium, whatever you want to call it, but that doesn't mean everyone is going to use the benefits,” Furman said.

Continued opposition from business groups has frustrated progressive advocates for the paid family leave policy. Judith Marquez, co-director of 9to5 Colorado, said it's time opponents stop thinking about their bottom lines and start thinking about women who are forced to return to work two weeks after giving birth or someone saying goodbye to a dying parent on the phone in a break room.

"The big business lobby has come out and said, 'We're going to fight you every single day,'" she said. "The goalposts keep moving and moving. And who will suffer are the working families that will not have a program good enough to provide access to everyone."

The legislation has one more committee vote before it reaches the Senate floor. If it passes, it should have an easier time surviving the Colorado House, where Democrats have a much larger majority. Gov. Polis has said he supports paid family leave.

Six states — California, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Massachusetts — already have passed paid family leave programs, along with the District of Columbia. Colorado is far from alone in considering whether to join them. NPR reports that more than two dozen states are expected to see paid family leave bills this year, including Colorado’s more conservative neighbors, Oklahoma and Nebraska.


Correction: Under the bill, a Coloradan making an average wage of about $50,000 per year would have about 70 percent of their wages reimbursed. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported how much of these wages would be reimbursed.