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Christine Levi unbuckles her daughter, Aaliyah, before dropping the toddler off at daycare in Denver. Levi resumed work the day she came home from the hospital after having Aaliyah because her employer offered no paid leave. Levi has since gotten a new job and is pregnant again. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When Christine Levi thinks about her “maternity leave” after having her baby girl, she starts to stress out all over again.

Levi, who was working as a paralegal for a small, downtown Denver law firm, resumed work the same day she left the hospital. She had zero days of paid leave and thought that if she asked for time off, her boss would fire her.

As a consolation, and because she had a C-section and wasn’t medically cleared to move around much, Levi’s boss let her work from home for six weeks. She put in full days, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., pausing only to make her newborn a bottle or change her diaper.

“It was really the worst experience,” she said. “It was a trip. I feel like I missed a lot of moments as a new mom.”

Levi quit a few months later, as soon as she found a new job. Her former workplace is small enough that it’s not subject to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows workers to take up to 12 weeks off — unpaid — after having a baby or to care for a sick loved one. Fewer than 40 percent of employees in Colorado work at a place large enough to meet the 50-employee threshold that mandates leave time under the federal law, according to legislative staff research.

The federal law doesn’t require that employers pay workers who take time off — that’s up to each employer. In Colorado, the vast majority of workers — about 80 percent — do not get paid leave, according to the working women’s advocacy group 9to5 and the Colorado Fiscal Institute.

That’s why one in four women in Colorado and the rest of the country return to work just two weeks after having a baby, sometimes before their first postpartum doctor visit.

But this could change under legislation coming to the statehouse later this month that will propose a family-leave program to provide paid leave to any worker in Colorado who needs time off to have a baby, adopt a baby, care for a loved one or sit beside a hospice bed. Paycheck deductions and employer contributions — totaling about 0.4 percent of a worker’s salary — would go into a state account to fund time off for people who applied.

Christine Levi carries her daughter, Aaliyah, into the toddler’s home daycare early one morning last week in Denver. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Similar legislation has come up four times, mostly recently last year when it was rejected by the Republican-majority Senate over concerns raised by small-business owners. This year, though, with Democratic control in the House, Senate and governor’s office, the measure is likely to pass.

Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Westminster, said she is bringing the legislation back on behalf of a woman who took three weeks off work to care for a loved one only to lose her job and her house. Winter, a mom, said she is also running the bill for the 25 percent of mothers who return to work two weeks after giving birth.

“I can’t imagine that,” she said. “Where are the babies going? Day care doesn’t even start until they are 6-weeks old.”

Colorado, she said, “can figure out a way that people can be good at both” — at being employees and family members. “People have babies and cancer and dying parents.”

This year’s bill will look similar to last year’s, although the 2018 version called for employee-only contributions and now Winter wants an employee-employer split.

For a worker earning $20,000 per year, the employer and employee each would contribute about $50 per year to the family-leave fund. The contribution for a worker earning $100,000 would total about $400 per year, $200 apiece from the worker and the employer, under this year’s proposal.

To gather support from the business community, Winter and co-sponsor Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, have been meeting with everyone from chambers of commerce to Colorado Ski Country USA to labor unions.

Still, full support from small businesses is unlikely, even though “the olive branch is out there to the business community from both sides of the aisle,” said Kevin Hougen, president of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce.

It’s not that business owners don’t believe in the sentiment. It’s that employers already have trouble finding workers while the unemployment rate is at historically low levels, he said. Hospitals and companies in Aurora are struggling to fill hundreds of positions, Hougen said.

If a worker goes on paid leave for three months, the employer is unlikely to find someone willing to take a temporary position. “In a perfect world, we all want that,” he said. “We are just in desperate shape for employees.”

The chamber has about 980 members, the majority of which are small businesses that do not have to follow the federal family-leave act.

The business advocacy group NFIB, which has about 7,000 members in Colorado, hasn’t taken a position on the legislation, but it has similar concerns. The average size of an NFIB member business is from five to nine employees.

“This is a big concern of ours,” said Tony Gagliardi, the Colorado director for NFIB. “I bring in a temporary worker, and at the end of 12 weeks, the regular worker comes back. Then what do I do with the temporary worker?”

Besides, he said, about 70 percent of NFIB members offer some paid leave. A state law could become an “intrusion” to employer-employee negotiations, which are “usually better than a one-size-fits-all” requirement, Gagliardi said.

“This is going to be instrumental”

New York, California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington and Washington, D.C., have family-leave laws. People in Rhode Island use the law the most, but the percentage is still small, at 0.08 percent of eligible workers, according to University of Denver research.

Rhode Island pays about 60 percent of a worker’s salary for up to four weeks, while California will pay 60 to 70 percent for up to six weeks, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

The maximum benefit allowed in Colorado, under last year’s legislation, was $1,000 per week for up to 12 weeks. An employee would have been eligible for paid leave after working 680 hours in the past year, or at least 17 40-hour weeks.  

In Colorado, an estimated 2.7 million workers could qualify under the proposal, according to the fiscal note for the bill prepared by legislative staff last year. The research estimated that about 3.5 percent of workers would file claims, resulting in 93,388 of them. The fund would grow to about $500 million in its first year, according to the fiscal note estimate.

“It’s a little bit of extra cash that we all have to chip in, and for those families that need it, this is going to be instrumental,” said Jennifer Greenfield, an assistant professor in DU’s Graduate School of Social Work.

Greenfield is studying whether paid time off for mothers affects the health outcomes of premature babies who spend their first weeks in neonatal intensive-care units. She and her team have interviewed about 100 mothers at NICUs in three hospitals.

Among them, just 12 percent had paid leave to visit and care for their babies, and the average was two weeks of paid time off. Half of the mothers worked full time, and 16 percent of them had two part-time jobs. Researchers are recording the babies’ weight, oxygen needs and other health measures at various points in their growth.

Greenfield plans to interview 300 mothers, but she’s worried she won’t find enough of them that have paid time off to prove whether it affects babies’ progress. Greenfield, a mother of 5-year-old twins who were once in NICU, was motivated to study the issue after watching working moms rush into the hospital before work to drop off breast milk and hug their babies, stressed out and sad they could not stay.  

“It’s a broken system”

Kelsey Rivera is among the few working moms who can bring her baby to the office, per the policy of Jefferson County Public Health. She was also able to take time off under the federal family-leave act, although she had to use up her sick and vacation days to get paid.

Many of her clients aren’t that fortunate. Rivera, a lactation consultant and nutritionist for the Women, Infants and Children program, said many women in the program — most often those who work for hotels and restaurants — return to work within two weeks of having a baby.

Some go back before they’ve even seen a doctor for a postpartum checkup. Most aren’t covered by the federal family-leave act, and even among those who are, some are afraid to take the time, Rivera said.

Rivera’s baby, Evalyn, can keep coming to work until she is mobile, and the time is quickly coming to an end as the 7-month-old is rolling over and about to crawl. “She’s technically not mobile yet!” Rivera said.

Kelsey Rivera, a lactation consultant and nutritionist for the Women, Infants and Children program in Jefferson County, takes her 7-month-old baby Evalyn to work with her some days. Many of her clients return to work within two weeks of giving birth, she said. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The debate over whether Colorado should enact a family-leave law comes as federal policymakers discuss competing proposals on the issue, including one backed by White House adviser and first daughter Ivanka Trump. The debate is part of a larger question that’s raged for decades, the one about how women can actually accomplish “having it all” on a daily basis.

“For me, it’s been hard to feel like I’m choosing between working and what’s best for my child,” said Kristin Hugen, a 32-year-old mother of a 5-month-old boy and a litigation paralegal at a large Denver law firm she did not want identified. “I like what I do. I’m respected at my job, but it was ridiculously hard to be away from him. There were some tears for a while.”

The firm offered two weeks of paid maternity leave, but Hugen couldn’t imagine leaving her son at two weeks. Instead, she pieced together four more weeks of partial pay through short-term disability and accrued time off. Still, she missed three full paychecks. And the kicker for her was that her human resources department, a few weeks before she gave birth, asked her to write the firm a check to cover her benefits — including short-term disability and health-insurance premiums — for when she was off without pay.

“I think they’ve been very generous to me, but I think it’s a broken system,” she said. “There is enough responsibility and pressure on new moms that they shouldn’t also have to worry about how they are not getting a paycheck.

“Luckily, we weren’t in a situation where we live paycheck to paycheck,” she said, “but what if you were?”

Kelsey Rivera is among the few working moms who can bring her baby to the office, per the policy of Jefferson County Public Health. She was also able to take time off under the federal family-leave act. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I was never doing enough”

The family-leave proposal would not only cover paid leave for new babies or adoptions or foster children, but would allow Coloradans to apply for funds while they take care of an elderly parent, sick loved one, or even a neighbor or friend. That last part is why Zoey Palmer is passionate about the issue and is now volunteering for 9to5 Colorado, an advocacy group for working women.

At 25, she was working as a barista, worried that the adoptive mother who took her in as a girl was going to die. Palmer worried, too, that she would lose a job that she desperately needed if she took time off.

So, she spent nights in Louisville to take care of her two adoptive brothers while their mother was in the hospital having open-heart surgery, then rose at 4 a.m. to make it to work on time in Denver.

Her adoptive mother, who took Palmer in after her mother died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2001, survived the lung cancer and heart problems that resulted from months of radiation treatments. But Palmer still wishes she could have been there for her, to hold her hand and to sit by her hospital bed.

“The exhaustion was pretty relentless and hard to describe,” said Palmer, now 31 and working as a medical assistant. “I had a lot of guilt and feeling like I was never doing enough, wasn’t doing a good-enough job at my work and wasn’t doing a good-enough job for my family. I was definitely very depressed and scared and on edge through that whole experience.

“Even being able to take that one week off comfortably would have been a huge help.”

Palmer’s adoptive mother didn’t have paid leave, either. She returned to work three weeks after open-heart surgery.

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...