Colorado workers would get 12 weeks’ paid family leave under new bill — but they have to pay, too

Anna Staver | Denver Post

Democrats introduced a bill Thursday that would give working Coloradans 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn, receive treatment for a major illness, leave a relationship marred by domestic abuse or help a family member who is sick or dying.

The state would administer the program, much as it does unemployment insurance, and employees and employers would contribute equally toward it. All full- and part-time workers and businesses of any size would have to participate.

“When you hear stories of people taking their parents off life support from their break room because they can’t be there and mothers struggling to come back to work after two weeks and cancer patients that have skipped their second round of chemotherapy because they can’t afford to lose their paycheck, it’s heartbreaking,” said Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster. “And this is a simple solution.”

The path that led to Senate Bill 188 has been anything but simple. Four previous iterations of paid family leave have failed at the statehouse in recent years because of concerns from Republicans and moderate Democrats about the ways it could impact businesses.

That’s why Winter partnered with Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, this year and made significant changes to how the leave would work. Williams opposed previous versions of the bill, and her support is critical in the Colorado Senate, where Democrats’ majority is narrow.

“I just had to get involved. I had to insert myself into the process,” Williams said. “I took time during the summer to meet with small businesses in my district and across the state to talk about the impacts to the operations of their businesses in the event someone needed to take 12 weeks off.”

Here’s how the proposed system would work: The bill would create a paid family leave system through the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. Every employee and every business would contribute weekly to a state-managed fund that would approve people’s claims and pay them out. People who are self-employed could opt into the plan, but no one working for someone else could opt out.

Williams said that’s important because previous iterations of this bill put the onus on small businesses to manage payments to their employees who took leave.

The costs would be split evenly between employers and employees and would total 0.64 percent of a person’s annual income. That means a person earning $50,000 per year would contribute $160 annually or about $3 per week. The employer would do the same.

Those payments would guarantee the worker a paid leave benefit that’s a percentage of their weekly salary for 12 weeks. The benefit would be offered beginning in January 2022.

RELATED: Guest Commentary: Our research on paid-family leave shows it’d pay off for Colorado

The formula for calculating that payment is a little complicated, but it’s designed as a progressive system, where low-income workers would get a larger percentage of their weekly income than high-income earners.

The bill directs CDLE to calculate the average weekly wage in Colorado each year and then use that amount as its baseline. People who earn that amount or below would get 90 percent of their wages. People who earn more would get 90 percent of the average wage plus 50 percent of their salary above that.

No one could collect more than $1,000 a week.

Employees would also be guaranteed they can get their job back by filing a complaint with CDLE or suing their employer. And it would be portable from job to job because the only requirement for getting paid is that a person worked 680 hours during the previous year.

Williams said she’s optimistic that some business groups and chambers of commerce who opposed previous iterations of the bill will be neutral on this version.

Six states and the District of Columbia have passed similar paid family leave laws and about two dozen more are expecting to debate bills this year, including Maine and Minnesota. Winter pointed out that even President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka Trump have talked about the need for some form of a paid leave system in the United States.

Ideas floated by the White House, however, more closely align with a bill Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Colorado Springs, tried and failed to pass earlier this session.

Landgraf’s bill would have let people open pre-tax savings accounts where they could contribute up to $5,000 annually and use the money to take up to 12 weeks away from work. Employers who contributed to the accounts would get tax credits.

“It doesn’t force somebody who does not need family leave to participate by being taxed,” Landgraf said of her proposal in December.

Winter, however, doesn’t think that idea would work for the poorest Coloradans. Winter’s bill would let someone earning $23,000 a year contribute about a dollar a week in exchange for 12 weeks off at 90 percent of his or her salary, while Landgraf’s bill would require that person to save about $4,700 if the employer didn’t contribute.

“It was really important to us to have universal coverage,” Winter said. “And we felt if you were a mom working in a fast-food place or a mom working in a law office, either way you should have time to bond with your child.”

Another Republican criticism of the family leave bill is that it essentially creates a new payroll tax, which means it should be sent to voters because a constitutional amendment called the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) says Coloradans get to vote on every tax increase.

“It’s also worth mentioning that if you’re an employee who already receives paid family leave from your employers, you’re still taxed,” said Sen. Rob Woodward, R-Loveland.

Winter and Williams both said the bill creates a fee, not a tax, and they think they are on solid legal ground. Colorado’s Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that certain vehicle registration fees weren’t taxes.

The bill is set to get its first public hearing next Wednesday.

 

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