Paid family leave passes first Colorado legislative test despite continued business opposition

Ed Sealover | Denver Business Journal

A proposal to create a statewide paid-family-and-medical-leave program for all Colorado private and public employees is one step closer to becoming law, even if most major business groups are no closer to supporting it.

Following a three-hour hearing that more than 100 potential witnesses skipped because of the ongoing blizzard — choosing to email in testimony that was not read aloud by the state Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee, despite a stated commitment from a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 188 to do so — Democrats on the committee advanced the bill on 3-2 party-line vote. It moves next to the Senate Finance Committee, where co-sponsoring Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, has encouraged interested parties detained by the snow to show up and speak at a March 19 hearing.

Under the system outlined by Winter and co-sponsoring Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, employers and employees both would pay a percentage of the worker’s salary into a state-run system that workers could access to take as much as 12 weeks off in most circumstances to deal with health issues, care for a sick family member or take time to be with a new child they have birthed or adopted. Employers of all sizes would be required to return that employee to their same job upon the end of the leave, and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment would determine the fees to fund the system and would approve or decline any worker requests for the time off.

A successor to similar bills that have failed four times in the past five sessions, SB 188 seeks to address the fact that 88 percent of Colorado workers do not have access to three months of partially paid leave, requiring some to have to choose whether to quit their jobs in order to care for a dying father or a newborn child, sponsors said. Groups like the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute and Good Business Colorado argued Wednesday that providing such universal leave will increase retention of workers, help small companies attract quality employees with benefits they previously could not offer and keep some $20.6 billion a year from leaving the national economy due particularly to women who leave the workforce to be caregivers.

“There’s a cost to not doing anything, both on the business side and the personal side,” Winter told the committee. “In Colorado we can value our businesses, we can value our entrepreneurial spirit and we also can value employees.”

Business leaders who have negotiated with the sponsors continued to say Wednesday, however, that the one-size-fits-all plan would pose a burden to small businesses that can’t afford to be without employees for long periods of time and to simultaneously pay them not to work, would reduce profit margins to the point where staffing could be cut and would eliminate companies’ ability to craft a solution that works for it and its employees. Groups ranging from the Colorado Chamber of Commerce to the Colorado Farm Bureau to Colorado Ski Country USA submitted comments against SB 188.

“Our members care deeply about their employees and teams. That’s why they already provide paid leave, they’re committed to a solution on FAMLI leave and also why they won’t put their safety at risk by testifying today at the Capitol,” said Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, in a statement.

Winter and Williams did add several amendments that they said were in response to the ongoing talks with business leaders. One would require that any complaints from workers about violations of the proposed law go through a state labor-department administrative process before a lawsuit could be filed. Another would cap the fee at 0.99 percent of a worker’s salary that must be paid by both the employer and employee and fees. And a third would reduce the employer contribution rates for governments and for businesses with 10 or fewer employees.

Even those did not quell controversy, however. Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, suggested that the change reducing the financial burden on governments was made only to lower the cost of the state to enact SB 188 and make it easier to fit into its budget.

And some of the central tenets of the bill sparked very different reactions — such as Winter’s statement that the program will be far cheaper to administer for both employers and employees because it is a state-run program that is not seeking to turn a profit, a fact that several Democrats applauded. However, Becky Brooks of the American Council of Life Insurers noted that the lack of exemption for paying into the program for businesses that already offer benefits equal to or greater than those demanded by the state means that most private insurers are likely to drop the programs for which they pay a combined $443 million in Colorado, leading to an $8.86 million loss in tax revenue to the state.

Still, proponents said the benefits will outweigh the burdens to businesses, particularly as the per-worker costs will range just from $70 to $250 a year for both employers and employees. The 25 percent of women who return to work two weeks after giving birth can spend more time with their children, which increases the rate of breast-feeding and decreases the rate of infant mortality, Winter said. And studies in California, which implemented a similar program 16 years ago, have shown that 90 percent of employers say they were not negatively impacted by the law, said Jared Make, a senior staff attorney with national advocacy group A Better Balance.

The bill is all but certain to pass through the Democrat-controlled Legislature and land on Democratic Gov. Jared Polis’ desk. The question now is whether business groups that support paid family leave in concept but oppose many of the details of the bill can find enough supporters elsewhere in the Senate to tack on any more amendments.

Sign up with your email address to receive updates.