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Opinion: Paid family leave is a pro-family policy for Coloradans

Last week, the Colorado Senate Finance Committee heard testimony on SB19-188, the Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FAMLI) program. Similar proposals have failed in previous years, but this one is receiving serious consideration and seems to have momentum toward passage.

This momentum makes sense. After all, paid leave is popular with voters, and there are good reasons for its popularity.

Jennifer Greenfield

In a recent study published by my research team, we summarized a growing body of evidence from states that already have paid family and medical leave programs in place. We found that paid leave has important health and economic benefits for workers, their infants and children, and even for employers and the state.

In fact, paid leave works so well that New Jersey just voted this year to expand that state’s program, which will now offer up to 12 weeks of leave for caregiving, childbirth, or a worker’s own medical needs — a plan that is strikingly similar to what Colorado is proposing to implement.

It was encouraging to see that even those testifying in opposition to the current bill spoke about the importance of paid leave for employees. This near universal support of the idea leaves me wondering why the bill hasn’t moved forward more quickly.

Paid leave is a policy that promotes strong family ties and helps workers to stay in the workforce rather than relying on public benefits. Paid leave enables new parents to stay home and care for their children during the crucial first few months of life.

Paid leave is shown to significantly increase mothers’ and infants’ use of preventive care, which reduces hospitalization rates and decreases maternal and infant mortality. In short, paid leave is a pro-family and pro-business policy.

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Some lawmakers have argued recently that the FAMLI program seems like another entitlement. In fact, it is another insurance program. When I make monthly payments to my auto insurance plan, I receive compensation if my car is totaled in an accident; similarly, when Coloradans pay premiums into the FAMLI fund, that fund will be available to pay a weekly income should that worker need cancer treatments or time off to help a parent who has just suffered a stroke.

Like car accidents, serious health challenges can come up unexpectedly. Paid leave means that a worker is more likely to return to work after the challenge is met — which means that our workforce will be more self-sufficient in the long run.

I participated in a Bipartisan Policy Center event this summer on the topic of paid family leave, along with former U.S. Sens. Rick Santorum and Chris Dodd. At the event, Sen. Santorum, a well-known conservative, argued that the American workforce has experienced a fundamental shift: a majority of households now rely on two incomes just to make ends meet, and many simply cannot afford to put away the kind of savings needed to offset lost income when a caregiving need arises.

He explained that his own thinking about a public paid leave program has changed in recent years because, although he “would love for the private sector to do this, they’re not doing it.”

In fact, many small businesses report that they would like to offer leave to their employees — workers who often feel like family in the small business environment — but they simply can’t afford to pay a worker’s salary while also covering that worker’s hours.

This is exactly why a public insurance program makes sense: when workers and employers share responsibility for premiums, the premium levels remain affordable for everyone.

I understand the questions raised in the Senate Finance Committee hearing about whether the estimated costs in the bill’s fiscal note are sound. The good news is that separate analyses have been done by multiple groups, including my research team’s own analysis based on the actual experience of other states with this type of plan.

Every estimate comes in with approximately the same projections in terms of costs and utilization. The plan is affordable and sustainable for the long-term in Colorado.

And while most workers will not need to take leave in the program’s first year, who among us can guarantee we’ll never need it?

Whether it’s our own serious medical crisis, a health challenge faced by a family member, a domestic violence emergency or time to welcome a new child into the family … once FAMLI is in place, workers will be able to fulfill their financial responsibilities while also taking care of their families.

It’s a bill that Coloradans across the political spectrum should support.

Jennifer C. Greenfield, Ph.D., MSW, (@jcgreenfield on Twitter) is an assistant professor in the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work.

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