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Opinion: Social benefit programs, like paid family leave, may not be easy. But they’re worth it.

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. One in four women in Colorado and the rest of the country return to work just two weeks after having a baby. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This session, legislators had the opportunity to join states across the nation in modernizing the workplace and providing more equitable benefits for all.

By creating the Family Medical Leave Insurance Program (FAMLI), Colorado could have joined the national movement to ensure public benefits match not only today’s current reality, but also the future of work. Instead, this year’s efforts fell victim to criticism that has long confronted the early implementation of social insurance programs and labor protections.

“Never in the history of the world has any measure been brought here so insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers and to prevent any possibility of the employers providing work for the people.”

These words from Rep. John Taber, a U.S. Congressman from New York, are about a federal proposal to create a public pension system, now known as Social Security. Today, Social Security lifts more individuals out of poverty than any other program and has become one of the nation’s most popular initiatives.

Social Security isn’t the only public program initially attacked as overreach. For almost a century, opponents have gone after fair labor standards as unnecessary and disastrous for the economy, yet, what was true then is true now — too many necessary protections don’t exist for a vast array of workers.

Thanks to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, most Americans enjoy the benefits of a 40-hour work week and have more control over their time working. The Affordable Care Act works to ensure individuals — including many who don’t have access to quality options through their employer — can receive the health care they need. These initiatives, and others like them, continue to ensure today’s workers have the dignity and protections they deserve.

Tyler Jaeckel and Andrea Kuwik

Many of our social insurance programs came as responses to the changing economic needs of their time. Proponents recognized both workplaces and socioeconomic conditions were changing, and they acted to create programs to respond to these needs. Since then, our economic conditions haven’t stopped evolving — and like our predecessors, we must work to ensure current protections exist to meet these needs.

FAMLI is a natural response to our changing workplaces. It’s a modest, but incredibly important, step in modernizing social insurance and labor protections. With women making up a larger percentage of the workforce and a greater number of workers engaging in short-term or contract work, providing a portable benefit that allows working Coloradans to not choose between a paycheck and raising a healthy family is the least we can do.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Make no mistake, creating and maintaining social insurance and worker protection programs is not easy; indeed, maintaining any insurance program, whether public or private, has its hurdles. Social Security has — and continues to face — challenges, from a lack of inclusivity to questions of how to deal with an unprecedented demand for benefits generated by baby boomers. As a result, the program has been —and will continue to be — amended. Labor protections have adapted to changing business environments and needs. They were not easily implemented with a snap of a finger and take time for businesses to adapt and markets to grow around them.

The Affordable Care Act was challenging to implement, and hasn’t been the sole fix to our health care problems. Yet, while we’ll continue to have an open debate on how to fix Social Security, best implement worker protection policies, and repair our health care system, rare is the person who doesn’t acknowledge the value these programs have added to our communities.

Like Social Security, the impossibility of precisely predicting the future cannot deter us from doing what is economically and socially right for current workers and future generations. The policy process is inherently imperfect. While it can’t guarantee outcomes, when based upon good data, it can come close.

The FAMLI proposal this year was developed through close consultation with other states that are implementing similar programs and professional analysis of the most up-to-date information. In addition to the state-based expertise of policy organizations, FAMLI is built upon research from the University of Denver, University of Massachusetts, and Institute of Women’s Policy Research. The legislature’s own independent Legislative Council, a professional and nonpartisan body, reviewed and assessed the underlying assumptions of the program

Social insurance programs and labor protects do have short-term costs to employees and employers, but they are largely overstated by the business community. But like Social Security, which prevented poverty for generations of Americans, FAMLI will have numerous long-term benefits on the health and wellness of the American worker and the American family.

Paid family and medical leave is one of the essential worker protection fights of our time. Colorado workers need to know they won’t lose their jobs or paychecks when looking after their health or that of a loved one. Like the creation of every other social benefit program, this won’t be easy.

While not the outcome we wanted, in its current form, Senate Bill 188 is still a step forward in creating a program that’s good for Colorado. By enacting an implementation plan, which was already part of the amended bill, we’re still taking a step forward, and we remain committed to creating the supports Colorado workers need to thrive.

Tyler Jaeckel is director of policy and research and Andrea Kuwik is a policy analyst at the Bell Policy Center in Denver. Bell Policy participated on the steering committee for the Family Medical Leave Insurance Program.

Rising Sun