Democrats seek paid family leave by requiring workers to buy insurance

Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, advocated for paid family leave on the West Steps of the State Capitol on Jan. 6, 2018. Photo by John Herrick.

This story was updated on May 1 after a Senate committee killed the bill. 

In 2009, Kris Garcia took a week of unpaid leave from her job at an auto parts store to visit her dying father 12 hours away in Texas. She was the sole breadwinner for the family at the time; her husband had hurt his back. The family fell behind on bills, she said. They lost the car to repossession and had the lights shut off. They sought assistance from a charity to help pay rent.

Garcia was back in Denver at work when she got a call from the hospital where her father was on life support. She said it was during this call that she instructed the doctor to remove him from life support. She finished out her shift, working another six hours because she had bills to pay.

That’s why for the past five years, Garcia has returned to the state Capitol to advocate for paid family leave. And this year, Democrats again made it a top priority to create state-run, employee-funded family and medical leave program.

“Everyone deserves security knowing that if they are sick or injured, or have a baby or a sick parent, that they don’t have to make that awful decision between keeping their job and caring for a family member,” Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, told a crowd of supporters on the west steps of the capitol on in early February. 

The bill later cleared the House but landed in the Senate with a thud; on April 30, the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which is controlled by Republicans, killed the bill along party lines. A similar bill last year was also sent to kill committee.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the federal Family Medical Leave Act, which gives workers 12 weeks of job-protected time off each year to care for family members. But that time off is unpaid. That’s why states like California, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Washington, as well as Washington, D.C., have stepped in to enact paid family leave laws.

Colorado’s bill, dubbed the FAMLI Act, short for Family and Medical Leave Insurance program, would have taken a percentage out of workers’ paychecks and put it into a family and medical leave insurance fund to cover up to 12 weeks of paid time off per year. Workers could have used this money to care for family members, a newborn child or themselves. The total benefit would range between 66 and 95 percent of the employee’s wage but could not exceed a weekly income of $1,000.

Workers would have paid a monthly premium on their wages up to .99 percent, bringing in $550 million by 2020-2021, according to Legislative Council. Benefits would have rolled out in January 2021.  

Employers would not have paid into the insurance program. But opponents of the bill, including the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, were concerned it created a one-size-fits-all administrative burden for businesses.  

“While we’re supportive of our current federal leave policies for larger companies, the expansion of these policies to the smallest businesses (including those that employ one person) could easily create costs that small companies cannot manage,” said Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kelly Brough in a statement in February. 

Judy Amabile, president and co-founder of Product Architects, Inc. in Boulder, supported the bill. She said she wants people to clock in ready to work, not worrying about money, family or their health. The company currently offer workers two weeks paid time off and salaried employees three weeks paid time off.

“We had somebody who had a baby and she did not want to come back to work after two weeks,”Amabile said, referencing a study that found one in four women return to work within two weeks of giving birth. “I mean that’s barbaric.”

This is the third year Winter has pushed for paid family leave. In February, she said she was hoping to ride the tailwinds of a statement made by President Donald Trump during his State of the Union address calling for supporting paid family leave. In response, Winter challenged Colorado Republicans to follow the president’s lead and support her bill.

That was not the case. But there is value to running a bill that lawmakers know will fail, said House Majority Leader KC Becker.

“You build support, you build awareness, you build constituencies — there is more value than the message,” Becker told reporters in May. “You flesh out the issues. You narrow down the things that are real sticking points.” 

Garcia, now a member of 9to5 Colorado, a group advocating for workers’ rights, said she can use six weeks between her paid sick and vacation days to be with her mother, who was diagnosed with stage four cancer on Jan. 4. She says she is grateful she gets to spend time with her mother, but she worries about using up all her paid time off.  

“Should I get sick, or if something happens to me, I’m worried I won’t be able to take time off,” Garcia said.

Title Photo: Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, advocated for paid family leave on the west steps of the Capitol on Tuesday. Photo by John Herrick.