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State Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, center, sits with House KC Becker, left, and Senate President Leroy Garcia as Gov. Jared Polis delivers his second State of the State address in the House chambers at the Colorado Capitol on Jan. 9, 2020. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When state Sen. Brittany Pettersen gave birth to her son, Davis, during the 2020 lawmaking term, the only way the Lakewood Democrat could take time off and avoid being docked pay was to have her pregnancy deemed a “long-term illness.”

That’s because the statutes governing the legislature dictate that a lawmaker who misses more than a third of the 120-day session should have their salaries reduced unless the Senate president or House speaker designates their absence as being due to a chronic illness.

“It’s obvious that these laws were not set up for women in the legislature,” Pettersen said.

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The birth of Davis and the arrival of several other legislators’ children over the past three years has prompted the Democratic majority to pursue changes to the General Assembly’s outdated leave policies.

Senate Bill 184, introduced last week at the Capitol, would automatically grant 12 weeks of paid parental leave to lawmakers, plus an additional four paid weeks for lawmakers who have pregnancy or childbirth complications.

The measure would also no longer limit the Senate president and House speaker to using the “long-term illness” standard when granting lawmakers paid leave longer than a third of the legislative session.

State lawmakers in Colorado make between $40,000 and $41,000 a year. 

“Being inclusive here has a direct impact on our democracy and who represents us,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat who is a prime sponsor of Senate Bill 184 alongside Pettersen. “I think we need to make sure that we don’t have barriers, either intentionally or unintentionally, that keep people from being able to run for office.”

Fenberg’s wife had the couple’s first child five days before the start of the 2020 lawmaking term. He opted not to take time off and as a result “was like a zombie for probably the first half of session” that year.

“It’s tough,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, with his newborn baby and other Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Some have questioned whether lawmakers should be able to miss extended periods given that it may mean their constituents are without representation at the Capitol while they are on leave. 

But Fenberg points out that being absent from the legislature doesn’t mean a lawmaker isn’t working. And the fact is that getting pregnant carries a degree of uncertainty.

“You don’t get to decide exactly when it’s gonna happen,” Fenberg said.

House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat, had a baby, Marlo, in July 2021. She, too, knows how difficult it can be to balance work at the Capitol and trying to take care of a newborn, even when the legislature isn’t in session.

“When you have a legislature that is citizen-led, there are people that live outside of this building,” she said. “We’re not career politicians here. If someone gets pregnant or if their spouse gets pregnant, they deserve the ability to have time off with their families after their child is born just like anyone else.” 

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...