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Colorado lawmakers focus on essential workers amid coronavirus, push to make paid sick leave a right for all

Much like the debate on broader paid family leave earlier this session, Colorado business owners and organizations are opposed to new mandates

Colorado Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, right, talks to Senate GOP leader Chris Holbert on the floor May 28, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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To lift public health restrictions and reopen Colorado, Democratic lawmakers say the first step is to protect essential workers like Mirja McDade in the retail and service industries.

McDade’s past jobs in the restaurant industry didn’t include paid sick time, so she worked regardless of her health. “The food industry is probably the worst as far as paid time off or paid sick leave,” she said.

In the era of COVID-19, that’s a dangerous situation — and it’s driving new legislation at the Capitol that would require all companies to provide paid sick leave to employees.

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“This is a direct response to what we are seeing in this current pandemic. It is about making sure that you don’t get a burger, fries and a side of COVID when you are at a restaurant,” said Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat and bill sponsor. “And more importantly, it’s about making sure that when we are not in a pandemic, you don’t get a burger, fries and a side of flu or something like that.”

The bill is a key component of the Democratic-led General Assembly’s new agenda in the coronavirus-shortened legislative session that party leaders say is “focused primarily on the health and safety of getting people back to work in a responsible way.”

“As people are able to return to work, as consumers and individuals feel more confident to go shopping and to leave their home, that means the faster the state is actually going to recover and get on its feet,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, another bill sponsor.

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Not to mention, he said, “we know that if more people (had) stayed home earlier in this crisis, when they were feeling sick or showing some symptoms, that would have slowed or lessened the severity of the spread of the virus.”

The proposal would declare that all Colorado workers “have the right to paid sick leave,” and starting Jan. 1, mandate that employers provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of 48 hours a year. 

In the event of a public health emergency declared by federal, state or local authorities, the requirement increases to 80 hours for employees who work 40 or more hours a week. For part-time employees, the sick leave increases to the amount of time worked in a two-week period. Both would cover quarantine and stay-at-home orders.

Gov. Jared Polis is supportive of paid leave and said the 48 hours per year “is about what’s needed,” but he declined to say he backs the legislation. 

“That would be very good in responding to this public health crisis,” Polis said in response to a recent Colorado Sun question about the proposal. “Because then, if they are a little under the weather, they will not feel the economic pressure to go in. They instead can go and get tested.”

For McDade, the 44-year-old restaurant veteran who is not currently working, said it’s much-needed. She has worked jobs with paid time off and ones without. When she doesn’t have it available, it’s more difficult to care for herself and her autistic son. “It would be nice that it wasn’t so constricted,” she said. “If you have an emergency you should be able to use it right then and right there.”

State Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, speaks at the Colorado Capitol on March 5, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Democrats abandoned broader paid leave earlier this session

The new bill comes after a failed effort earlier this year to create a paid family leave program, with at least 12 weeks leave, amid opposition from the business community. 

And like its predecessor, the new measure is drawing considerable criticism from Republican lawmakers and business owners who say the pandemic is not the time to impose new requirements on businesses.

“We are giving them enough mandates for safety compliance,” said Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument. “Another mandate will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back — except it’s much heavier than a straw, it’s probably a brick bat.”

Right now, some Colorado workers are able to take paid sick leave under federal coronavirus legislation through the end of the year. 

At least six states require employers to provide paid sick leave to all employees and another seven states require it for companies with more than 15 employees, according to legislative analysts. In some states, the terms are more limited and require a 90-day waiting period or more working hours to accrue sick leave.

The legislation in Colorado — labeled the Health Families and Workplaces Act — would begin when the federal sick leave requirements end. And it would go further than other states by requiring all companies, regardless of size, to provide the benefit to all workers. It also would start when employment begins. 

“It’s meant to be a very basic safety net for all workers in the state of Colorado,” Fenberg said.

Under the language of the bill, an employee could use the time to attend medical appointments or address a mental or physical health condition, and the coverage extends to situations related to sexual assault, harassment or domestic abuse. 

An employee could use the paid sick time for themselves, family members and people who live with them for at least six months. In a public health emergency, the sick time would cover situations where the employee needs to look after a child whose school or childcare facility has closed. The request could be made verbally and does not require proof of need.

The employees may carry forward unused time into the new year so they don’t start at zero each January. But the maximum leave in one year remains at 48 hours, unless employers allow more time. In addition,employers don’t need to pay out unused leave when an employee leaves the company. 

The requirement on employers does not apply to federal, state and local governments, or school districts. And any businesses that currently provide at least 48 hours of paid time off would meet the requirements but vacation does not qualify 

Bridges, one of the bill sponsors, said he expects to make changes to tighten the requirements in the bill to ensure employees tap their sick leave “for what it’s allowed to be used for.” The sponsors also encouraged employers to go beyond the minimums outlined.

The proposed terms of the new program sound “marvelous,” to Serah Ezeudoye, 80, who escorts passengers in wheelchairs for a company at Denver International Airport. Despite her 23 years on the job, she had to take off three unpaid days in June 2019 after being put in the hospital for a medical condition.

“If we have all this being paid for, it is good for the economy and it is good for the family. I makes everybody happy,” she said.

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Business groups and owners express concern about the bill

The legislation is expected to cost the state labor department $300,000 a year to enforce and require at least three new employees to handle a projected 480 sick leave complaints each year.

An employer who violates the law would face fines up to $100 from the state, according to analysts, as well as potential civil lawsuits.

Tony Gagliardi, the Colorado director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said most of his members offer paid leave and such decisions are “best left between the employer and the employee — that’s the way it’s worked for years.”

He said his members are focused on how to keep their businesses alive or reopen the doors as public health restrictions lift, so now is not the time for new regulations. 

“Right now, I think it’s bad timing,” he said. “Let’s get business going again, let’s get the economy going again, and don’t saddle business owners with new costs when they are trying to come back from forcibly being closed for 10 weeks or so.”

Jim Noon, the owner of Centennial Container, a packaging company, echoed the sentiment. 

He offers 32 hours of paid sick leave to his 11 employees, so an increase to 48 hours under the bill wouldn’t make a huge impact. But it’s the broader message Democrats are sending to businesses that bothers him.

“Where I have a problem with this: Why do we have to mandate it? Is it just so they feel better?” he asked. “We are coming out of the biggest hit that business has taken all at one time in the history of the country, and we’re going to make businesses pay the bill?”

For Colorado Concern, an influential business organization that opposed the paid family leave legislation earlier this year, the new bill and new focus on workplaces is concerning. 

“Unfortunately, adding additional financial pressures to businesses — and this is not the only bill like this that is being discussed — is only going to make it more difficult for our business owners to get their doors open and maintain their staffing levels,” Mike Kopp, the organization’s president, wrote in a statement. 

Instead, Kopp argued the focus should be “specific crisis-relief measures that help businesses safely keep more of their valued workers employed.”

“This measure,” he added in the statement, “while surely well-intended, doesn’t do that.”

Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

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