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Politics and Government

Coronavirus put an end to Colorado’s paid family leave bill. But there’s a lot more to the story.

Democratic lawmakers, who’ve failed for years to pass paid time off for illness and new babies, are calling it quits again in 2020. Instead, they’re throwing their weight behind a potential measure on the November ballot.

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)
  • Credibility:

Gov. Jared Polis made it clear he wanted any government-mandated family-leave program in Colorado to use the private market, a setup that would require businesses to buy insurance to cover employee time off for a new baby or illness. 

Then he didn’t have time to deal with it. 

That’s one major reason the proposal — a key part of the Democratic agenda — will not pass the legislature this year. The bill won’t even get introduced, and its sponsors announced Friday that they are instead supporting a plan to put the question on the November ballot.

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Simply put, the coronavirus killed the family-leave legislation. Not only is the governor’s office too busy dealing with the pandemic to offer input, lawmakers said, some businesses are in such financial turmoil after a six-week shutdown ordered by the government that asking them to contribute to a paid-leave program is a nonstarter.

But the reason the legislation, which has failed five previous times at the state Capitol, didn’t advance this year goes deeper than the current state of affairs.

Even before the coronavirus reached Colorado, the proposal came under attack by a large portion of the business community, including the National Federation of Independent Business and the Denver Chamber of Commerce, and by progressive lawmakers who complained the measure left out contract and gig workers, who represent a swath of Colorado’s lower-income and minority employees. Polis, too, complicated the matter by requiring it to run like insurance instead of a state-run program favored by many advocates. 

Just three weeks ago, Democrats said they were unwilling to let the proposal go, noting that the new coronavirus underscored their push — workers who are sick should not have to choose between paying their mortgage and infecting others by going to work.

But the four Democratic lawmakers who worked on the proposal via Zoom calls throughout the statewide stay-at-home order now have signaled defeat. They are giving up on the idea that the measure — which Rep. Matt Gray of Broomfield called the “most lobbied piece of legislation you  can find” —  can reach common ground inside the statehouse.

Three potential ballot measures would set up a social program

Their announcement, coincidentally, came on the same day the Colorado Supreme Court approved the language of two ballot measures on paid leave for the November election. The measures, and a third pending court approval, all were written by issue committee Colorado Families First and with varying levels of leave packages.

It’s still up in the air which of the three measures Colorado Families First will try to get on the ballot, a feat that requires 124,632 valid signatures from voters that organizers would need to gather during the pandemic. Spokeswoman Lynea Hansen said the group planned to “talk to our allies” to make that decision. “Our coalition just got a lot bigger in the last couple of days,” she said. 

Either way, the ballot proposal would ask voters to set up a social insurance program run by the state. This means the state labor department would manage payments to the program from employers and employees and have the task of deciding who is eligible for leave and how much pay people would receive while off work. 

Two of the measures allow for up to 12 weeks of paid leave to have a baby, recover from an illness, or take care of a sick family member. The other would provide up to 16 weeks. The three proposals vary slightly regarding a 50-50 split in contributions between employee and employer, whether small businesses are exempt and whether businesses could choose to buy paid-leave insurance through the private market instead of through the state plan. 

The Democrats who planned to sponsor the legislation would not say which version they prefer.

“We’re not in charge of the ballot initiatives and we’re not going to be,” Gray said during a Zoom news conference. “We are going to be champions for whatever they land on. All of the three are better than the absolute nothing, the absolute void that we have right now.”

State Rep. Matt Gray, D-Broomfield, joins other members and guests in the House chambers as the second regular session of the 72nd Colorado General Assembly convenes at the Colorado Capitol on January 8, 2020 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Private-market plan evaporated when coronavirus hit 

Before the coronavirus arrived and the legislature shut down for two months, Gray, Sens. Faith Winter of Westminster and Dominick Moreno of Commerce City, and Rep. Yardira Caraveo of Thornton, were working on a bill that incorporated the governor’s private-market idea. 

The proposal created a mandate for businesses to provide paid leave for their employees, and set up the need for a private market where they could buy that type of insurance. There were hours of conversations with the state Division of Insurance about how to set up that market and make sure businesses who employed more women of child-bearing age were not forced to pay higher premiums. 

And there were conversations about how to include ski industry staff, drivers for Uber and Grubhub and other Colorado gig and contract workers. 

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After the pandemic hit, and the governor and businesses were preoccupied with more pressing issues, the legislation began to morph into what it looked like last year — a social insurance program run by the government. And then it became clear to the bill’s sponsors that they could not pass it, particularly as the governor slashed $229 million in spending because of the economic crisis. 

Moreno said the private model pitched by the governor’s office would have required several new employees in the Division of Insurance, which is “out of the question” right now. A plan run by the state would become a self-sustaining enterprise, said the senator, who is vice chairman of the Joint Budget Committee.

A governor’s spokesman said Friday that while Polis “has always fought for paid leave for Colorado’s workers,” he is now focused on keeping residents safe during the pandemic and “making sure our economy can bounce back stronger than before.” 

The governor “looks forward to reviewing the ballot measures,” spokesman Conor Cahill said in an email. 

Businesses prefer private-sector plan

Roger Hays, owner of Premier Employer Services in Englewood, is among the business owners opposed to a state-run program. He wishes that instead of a ballot measure, the sponsors of the bill would return to the Capitol next year to work out a plan that could get support from businesses and the governor. 

“I’m really surprised they are going to push it with this pandemic and the fact that so many people are teetering on bankruptcy and unemployment,” he said. 

Hays’ company provides human resources services to small businesses, setting up their payroll and benefits programs. Most companies he works with already provide some type of paid leave and favor a private-sector plan rather than “creating a new government entity,” Hays said. 

The ballot measures — no matter which one is pushed forward — are either “all government or partial government,” he said. “That’s where most folks start to balk at it.” 

But lawmakers said they’ve reached the end of their efforts. 

“The best option is going to be handing it over to the people,” Caraveo said. “Colorado has a long history of passing big issues on the ballot when the legislature can’t do it.”


Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report. 

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