Colorado business leaders gear up for next family-leave battle as sponsors pledge ‘homework up front’

Ed Sealover | Denver Business Journal

While business groups may have celebrated briefly Wednesday that they had won this year’s battle over the establishment of a mandatory paid-family-leave program for all private-sector workers in Colorado, they immediately began girding for the next fight — the creation of a task force that will recommend whether a proposal expected to be brought forward next year looks any different than this year’s controversial version.

Sponsoring Democratic Sens. Faith Winter of Westminster and Angela Williams of Denver pulled back heavily on their Senate Bill 188 Wednesday, turning it from a mandate to implement a $1 billion program over the next 4-1/2 years to an implementation plan that calls for discussion and study of the idea in anticipation of proposing another bill in 2020 but does not require the state to move forward on anything other than a number of studies. The move was necessary, Winter explained tearfully on the Senate floor, because too many people questioned the fiscal solvency of the bill to pass it out of the Democratic-majority Senate, even as individuals asked her to help them balance their jobs with their new babies or their cancer treatment.

Business leaders, who had led the fight against SB 188 over a tense month-and-a-half of hearings, expressed both surprise and gratitude at the move Wednesday, saying that they believed a groundswell of opposition led by locally run and small businesses taking their concerns about the burdens of the bill directly to their legislators temporarily grounded a program many had seen as a sure thing to pass at the beginning of this session. A recent study from the Common Sense Policy Roundtableand a legislative memo laying out scenarios for funding difficulties if more people than expected took advantage of the program seemed to turn the conversation critically from “What does this bill mean for businesses” to “What does this bill mean for the state’s ability to offer a massive insurance program without it going broke and causing other financial problems?”

“A lot had to do with the fiscal impact of the bill and legislators having to go back to their constituents to defend it,” said Tony Gagliardi, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business. “If it didn’t work, they would have to go back to the districts and say, ‘I supported a bill that put us $500 million into debt.’ Would you want to be that elected official?”

SB 188 seeks to create a state-run system funded by fees on both employers and employees that will allow workers to take as many as 12 weeks of partially paid leave to care for a new child, an ailing family member or themselves. The bill in its most recent form called for anyone who has paid into it for 17 weeks at any job to be eligible for benefits, which begin in 2024, and to have their same job waiting for them when their leave ends.

But while the change to SB 188, approved by acclimation on the Senate floor late Wednesday, means businesses and their workers don’t face mandates to fund a new system yet, Williams and Winter emphasized that they acceded to the idea of additional study because they believe it will back their ideas of how a system should be run and will allow them to come back next year with a similar version that has many similarities to this year’s version. The senators made about two-dozen changesto the bill to try to work with business critics in the past month, and while they said that some made the bill better — including a narrower definition of family and an allowance for companies with plans offering similar or stronger benefits to opt out of the state system — they also said they believe the studies required to be undertaken this year can allow them to pass the bill without so much compromise of their vision for universal, portable care.

One thing that Winter emphasized in explaining Wednesday’s amendment in an interview was that she would not compromise on the bill applying to all workers, despite calls from NFIB and some other groups to exempt the smallest businesses who have the hardest time missing employees for extended periods of time. That comes despite Gagliardi saying he wants to continue talking about small-business exemptions and Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, saying Thursday that the first thing the task force should consider is whether this should involve universal coverage.

The makeup of the task force also raised concerns Wednesday, as it is set to include 15 members, but only three who specifically are representatives of private businesses. The rest of the group would consist of workers, organized labor, state government representatives, a health-policy advocate and a private insurer, among others. No local-government representatives are slated to serve on the panel.

“I’d like to see a little more business expertise,” said Rachel Beck, vice president of government affairs for the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corp. “And I’d like to see a little more expertise on these types of programs.”

Among the issues that will be studied before the end of the year, Winter said, are how other states like California and Rhode Island administer their programs, what sorts of usage projections are realistic (particularly after Republicans and the CSPR questioned their assumptions that only 3.5 percent of workers would use 12 weeks in a year) and whether the state or a third-party group should administer the program. Winter and Williams said there is no doubt they will bring back another bill next year and that it would be able to answer questions about funding and operations that stopped several of their Democratic colleagues from being able to get behind SB 188 this year.

“Our work is not in vain. The work we’ve done on a very, very complex policy has given us learning,” Williams said. “We’re going to do our homework up front.”

Asked if there was a middle ground that could be achieved, particularly as business leaders complained of the program’s burdensome, one-size-fits-all structure, opponents of this year’s bill remained cautiously optimistic but said that sponsors must go a lot further toward meeting their needs than they did this year. Beck, for example, said the next proposal likely needs to have fewer than 12 weeks of paid leave available, a narrower range of reasons the use can be leaved and replacement wages lower than the 90 percent portion that the lowest-income earners could receive during their leaves — all issues that the sponsors were not willing to compromise on this year.

While opponents of the bill breathed a sigh of relief, supporters of the measure had mixed reactions to the decision to hold off on moving forward on the program for at least one more year.

Debra Brown, executive director of the Good Business Colorado organization that is more amenable to government regulation than most other business groups, said that while she was disappointed with the delay, she remained confident that the new work will lead to policies that don’t force workers to choose between keeping their jobs or caring for a loved one.

But Judith Marquez, co-director of lower-income working women’s advocacy group 9to5 Colorado, expressed frustration that for the fifth time in the last six legislative sessions, a bill that launches a paid-leave program for all workers is not going to become law.

“Colorado doesn’t need more studies,” Marquez said in a statement. “Our Legislature needs to make a simple moral decision on whether we support workers who are caring for themselves and loved ones.”

Sign up with your email address to receive updates.