New laws in the new year: minimum wage, human trafficking and employee records

Coloradans won’t be able to buy full strength beer in grocery stores in 2017, and it’ll still be illegal for communities to ban fracking. Those are among the state laws that, despite efforts to change them, weren’t modified in 2016.

What did change? There are 385 new laws in Colorado that came from the General Assembly. Eleven of those 385 laws go into effect when the new year rolls in Sunday.

Also taking effect Sunday: a long-awaited minimum wage hike, approved by voters in November. The hourly minimum for all employees will increase 99 cents, from $8.31 to $9.30. The wage will continue to increase 90 cents per year until 2020, when the guaranteed hourly minimum reaches $12.

Amendment 70, the ballot measure to raise the minimum wage, passed on Election Night with 53.4 percent of the vote. Colorado Families for a Fair Wage, the campaign behind the measure, ultimately decided to try for $12 per hour rather than a more ambitious $15 because polls showed that the lesser amount was more likely to pass.

The wage increase is intended to help close the ever-widening gap between income levels and cost of living. A study by the University of Denver shows that most low-wage workers will see an overall increase – even considering potential losses in benefits they currently receive — and predicts a $400 million boon to Colorado’s gross domestic product. The study suggests that “few families, if any” will lose access to low-income housing assistance, and that Coloradans currently participating in the Colorado Works program, the state’s version of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, would be unlikely to lose benefits.

But some low-wage workers, the study found, may be worse off under the increase. Single mothers who are currently pregnant and two-income families with one or two children stand to lose access to WIC benefits, for example. WIC (The Women Infants and Children Nutrition Program) provides important sources of nutrition to mothers and children. Single parents with a young child could also be disqualified from receiving supplemental nutrition assistance under SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

The wage increase comes as Colorado’s cost of living continues to rise, particularly in urban areas. According to the federal Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the Consumer Price Index for Boulder, Denver and Greeley rose 3 percent between early 2015 and early 2016. Higher housing costs are largely to blame. Food prices remained steady during this period. And energy prices decreased by about 10 percent.

Colorado’s move toward a $12 hourly wage aligns with recommendations put forth by the U.S. Department of Labor, which says that such an increase will largely benefit workers over the age of 20. That refutes the argument by many opposition groups that a minimum wage hike only helps teenagers who work part-time.

The Department of Labor also highlights the fact that the minimum wage does not “stay the same” without congressional action. “Because the cost of living is always rising, the value of a new minimum wage begins to fall from the moment it is set,” the department reports.

Other new laws passed this year by the General Assembly will make the following policy changes:

• Human trafficking for sexual service, when it involves children, will be considered a form of child abuse. County social service agencies and the state Department of Human Services also will be required to come up with a screening tool to help identify those children.

• Child support laws will allow the state to seize insurance payments, awards and settlements to satisfy overdue child support payments. The law also sets a limit of five years for seeking retroactive child support when custody changes. And it  changes requirements around publication of notices for presumptive fathers in paternity cases when the father cannot be found.

• Coloradans will be allowed to review their personnel files at least annually, upon request. The employee must pay the cost for copying, if required. The new law will allow workers to make sure information about them is accurate and, backers say, could save both employees and companies the time and expense of lawsuits.

The law makes exceptions for two groups: state employees, whose personnel records are already available under the state’s open records law; and employees of banks, credit unions, savings or trust companies. Financial institutions lobbied against the bill until it was amended to remove those companies.

• The state will broaden its database for mental health professionals. The database, which is accessible online to the public and maintained by the Department of Regulatory Agencies, has been used strictly for psychotherapists. The new law will allow psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists and other professional counselors to register, as well. A candidate awaiting licensure as a mental health professional will also be able to register. Registration is voluntary. The database gives the public a way to confirm that a mental health professional is, in fact, licensed or in the licensing process.

• It will become a petty criminal offense to deliberately lie about needing a service or companion animal as a way of obtaining affordable housing or other accommodations. Those other services could include specialized public transportation or any other program or service designed to help those with service animals. A first-time offense will earn a warning. After that, it’s a $25 fine for a first-charged offense; $50 to $200 for a second offense; and between $100 and $500 for a third or subsequent offense. Under the Federal Fair Housing Act, people with service animals are allowed to rent housing without paying an extra fee for pets, and landlords who rent to those tenants are seeing more requests for that kind of housing.

In 2014 and 2015, according to the Colorado Department of Law, 40 people were convicted of misrepresenting their need for disabled parking permits, which is a misdemeanor. The Judicial Department believes there will be about 20 court filings per year related to the new law about misrepresentations in housing applications.

• Coloradans will be able to obtain quicker refills for prescription eye drops that are covered by health insurance plans in Colorado. People with certain medical condition like Parkinson’s may have trouble putting the drops in their eyes and waste some of the medication because their hands shake. That leaves them without drops if their bottle runs dry before the 30-day renewal period. As long as a refill is authorized, a 30-day prescription may be refilled under the new law as early as 21 days.

All but 16 of the 385 laws created in the 2016 legislative session have already gone into effect. They include the 2016-17 state budget, which started on July 1; a law allowing Coloradans in single-family residences to collect rainwater in rain barrels, changes in state law to make references to the attorney general gender-neutral; and a new program to encourage teachers and prospective teachers to consider jobs in rural school districts.

Three issues remain unresolved in 2016 and are likely to show up again in 2017: figuring out how to pay for repairs to the state’s roads, highways and bridges, a multi-billion dollar expense; reforms to the state’s construction defects law, which developers and builders claim keeps them from building affordable condos and townhomes; and a reclassification of the state’s hospital provider fee, which pays for Medicaid and other health services for low-income residents and children. Reclassifying the fee could free up more than $300 million annually that could be used for K-12 education and transportation.

Next week: a preview of the 2017 legislative session and what’s on the agenda for the Colorado General Assembly.

Kelsey Ray also contributed to this story.

Photo credit: Marakma, via Creative Commons license, Flickr

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.