Supporters of a bill from Colorado Democrats on paid family leave bill rally outside the Colorado Capitol on April 9, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

By Jim Anderson, The Associated Press

A Colorado Senate committee on Tuesday advanced an ambitious paid family leave bill that was substantially amended by its sponsors in an attempt to alleviate the concerns of most of the state’s major business chambers.

The Senate Finance Committee voted 4-3 Tuesday to send the bill to the Appropriations Committee. The vote came after Sens. Faith Winter and Angela Williams, the bill’s Senate sponsors, offered a series of amendments, including an option allowing private employers to opt out of the program.

Senate Bill 188 would create a state-run paid family and medical leave program so employees can take time off to care for newborns, themselves or others in medical and other emergencies without worrying about their jobs.

Williams and Winter insist it’s a vital initiative as majority Democrats and first-term Gov. Jared Polis are prioritizing a broad range of health issues.

Williams, a former small business owner, said many small businesses support the bill because it would increase worker productivity and retention.

She and Winter told a rally outside the statehouse before Tuesday’s hearing that the bill will allow mothers to nurture their newborns and cancer patients to keep up with chemotherapy without financial pressure to get back to work.

“Yes, there’s a cost to this policy — but there’s also a cost to not doing anything,” Winter said.

Sen. Faith Winter poses for a photo with her daughter Sienna Snook, 7, on her first day as a state senator. (Kathryn Scott, The Colorado Sun)

The federal Family Medical Leave Act generally allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and retain their health coverage at firms with more than 50 workers. The state bill would create a fund to pay a percentage of wages during a leave.

Several states, including California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island, run their own leave programs largely funded by payroll deductions, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Washington state and Washington, D.C., plan to launch programs in 2020.

State plans often exempt small employers and firms that offer their own leave benefits. Some allow workers to opt in through payroll deductions, even if their employers don’t participate. Eligibility requirements vary, with some states requiring a year of employment before someone can take such leave.

The amended Colorado bill requires employees and employers to contribute on a 60%-40% basis to a state fund that, by fiscal year 2020-21, could reach $922 million, according to legislative analysts. Bond revenue would help launch the fund, to be administered by the Department of Labor and Employment.

The bill accommodates up to 12 weeks’ leave, with up to $1,000 a week in benefits, depending on income. Premium payments would begin in 2023, with the first benefits available in 2024.

Someone earning between $12,001 and $20,000 a year would pay from $38 to $64 a year into the fund. Employees earning $60,001 to $80,000 annually would pay from $192 to $256 a year. Employers would match those premiums.

Williams and Winter offered several concessions to the bill’s opponents and to appease members of their own party who had misgivings. They extended the program’s start by two years. They added the employer opt-out provision — as long as the employer’s benefits at least match the state’s — while employees still can join. They changed the employer-employee contribution ratio from 50-50%.

They also eliminated a discount rate for local governments and public entities. Business leaders protested the discount unfairly shifted the cost burden to the private sector.

Winter acknowledged the changes likely won’t satisfy many business interests, even though the bill is championed by other groups such as Good Business Colorado and women’s advocacy organizations.

“I did not say this appeases the business community. They are opposed and remain opposed,” Winter said.

Loren Furman, a senior vice president with the Colorado Chamber of Commerce, had listed a host of concerns about the bill, including a requirement that users would only be required to be employed for 17 weeks rather than a year to be eligible.

Most other states with leave programs had a state disability program to build onto, but Colorado doesn’t, Furman noted.

Republican Sen. Paul Lundeen objected that an updated fiscal impact statement on the amended bill only was made available during the hearing. Williams and Winters vowed to keep working with the GOP on the legislation.

The Associated Press