Family leave bill rewritten to address pushback from businesses

Proposed family leave program clears major hurdle, but question remains whether Gov. Jared Polis will sign it

Sen. Faith Winter speaks at a paid family leave rally on April 9, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)

Zoey Palmer said she wanted to spend more time caring for her stepmother after she underwent open-heart surgery.

But the 31-year-old from Denver couldn’t take time off from her job at a cafe. She had rent to pay, she said.

Palmer had already lost her mother to ALS, a deadly neurodegenerative disease, and was worried she was going to lose another parent while she was recovering in the hospital.

“She didn’t have anybody there to advocate for her. She didn’t have anybody there to help her get food that she could actually keep down,” Palmer told The Colorado Independent.

Palmer was among the dozens that came to the state Capitol on Tuesday to rally in support of a bill that would create a state-run paid family and medical leave insurance program for all private-sector employees. This kind of program would have allowed her to take paid time off.

The bill, SB-188, dubbed the FAMLI Act, short for Family and Medical Leave Insurance, would provide up to 12 weeks of a partial wage replacement for certain employees while they care for their children, parents or themselves. Workers would begin paying premiums in 2023 with benefits rolling out in 2024. 

The high-priority legislation, which many Democrats campaigned on last year, has been in a holding pattern for weeks after business groups, including the Colorado Chamber of Commerce, which represents hundreds of businesses, came out strongly against it. The legislation would require employers to share the cost of the benefits with their employees. The family leave program would cost an estimated $1 billion per year.  

The Senate Finance Committee had tabled a final vote while supporters rewrote the legislation. On Tuesday, the committee approved 16 amendments that narrowed the scope of the program and reduced costs for businesses, including allowing some businesses to opt out. It passed the bill 4-3 along party lines. The measure now heads to the Appropriations Committee before it goes to the full Senate.

This year marks lawmakers’ fifth attempt at passing a paid family leave program, and, supporters say they are confident the bill will pass.

“We are going to get it over the finish line,” said Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Westminster who is sponsoring the bill, at a rally outside the state Capitol.

Here are the basics on where the bill stands:

How is it financed?

First, employees must work 680 hours — the equivalent of 17 full-time work weeks — with the same business to qualify for benefits. 

The bill includes a “premium,” or fee, of .64% of a worker’s salary that would be paid into the insurance pool. Workers and employers would share this cost. The latest version of the bill would split that premium among employers and employees 40% to 60%, respectively.

That means someone earning $50,000 per year would pay about $3.68 per week with their employer kicking in about $2.45 to match the premium.

The money is used to provide a partial wage replacement as high as 90% but the benefit is capped at $1,000 per week.

The bill requires the Department of Labor and Employment to commission a financial study to ensure the program can be sustained. This report must be presented to lawmakers by March 1, 2020.  

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What changes were made to satisfy business interests?

One change allows businesses and local governments that already offer equivalent paid family and medical leave benefits to opt out of the program.

The bill also originally called for equal contributions from employers and businesses. Now, employees will pay more than their employers. 

The program’s scope was narrowed, too. No longer are seasonal employees guaranteed a job after they accept paid time off. The definition of family also was narrowed to immediate family members, current or former stepparents and stepchildren, and certain long-term relationships.

The latest version of the bill capped time off at 12 weeks, though the original proposal allowed for up to 16 weeks for complicated pregnancies and other medical issues.

The bill sponsors, Winter and Sen. Angela Williams, a Democrat from Denver, also agreed to delay the bill’s start by two years.

Even with the amendments, business groups still oppose the bill. Some want to see exemptions for small companies, among other changes. Some business owners support the bill, including Illegal Pete’s founder and owner Pete Turner.

Will the bill pass?

Tuesday was a critical test for the legislation and its passage out of Senate Finance gives the bill a fresh breath of life.

But Gov. Jared Polis remains a big question mark. As with many bills, he has not yet issued a statement on whether he supports it. A spokesperson said his office is reviewing the language of the bill and is in discussions with the sponsors. Polis proposed a paid family leave program for state employees in his budget request. 

Senate Finance Committee member Sen. Nancy Todd, a Democrat from Aurora, has been on the fence. But, on Tuesday, she voted “yes.” Tipping her vote, she said, was that the program, if it becomes law, will not be implemented for several years. 

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