On eve of paid family leave bill debut, some workers may be left behind

Immigrants without immediate family to help care for them and seasonal workers could see little-to-no benefit under current proposal

A paid family leave rally at the state Capitol's west steps on April 9, 2019. Democrats hope to pass such a program in 2020. (Photo by John Herrick)

Democrats are poised to release a landmark bill to create a paid family leave insurance program in Colorado, a dream years in the making for progressives. But just days before the bill drops, advocates are coming to terms with a political reality that’s leaving them with conflicted feelings of triumph and grief. 

On Thursday afternoon, workers rights advocates, lobbyists for businesses and staffers crammed into a meeting room in the basement of the state Capitol to ask lawmakers questions about a draft version of the bill, which could be introduced in the Senate as soon as Monday.  

This year marks the sixth attempt at passing such a program, which would allow people to take time off from work to care for themselves, family members or loved ones. A paid family leave bill was shot down in the Senate last year after some Democratic senators, who control the chamber by two votes, raised concerns over how much the program would cost and its impact on businesses, specifically the ski industry, which relies on relatively low wage seasonal and part-time workers. 

Many of those disagreements have since been ironed out. Businesses have all but dropped opposition. So, too, has Gov. Jared Polis, a tech entrepreneur and business owner, who has sought to limit the program’s burden on businesses. In the minds of those in the room Thursday, the draft bill in their hands could soon become law. Some workers could be covered as soon as July 2020 and eventually receive up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. 

But the meeting was not a victory lap. 

This year’s iteration of the program would be run by private insurance companies, giving them more power over people’s coverage. Advocates worried the bill allows insurance companies to earn a 25% profit. They worried insurance companies and employers might discriminate against women and minorities. And they worried some workers might be denied coverage. 

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Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Westminster, a long-time champion of the paid family and medical insurance program, shares many of those concerns. 

“I’m not the one stopping it,” Winter said of a state-run version of the program. “We’ve talked about the political reality of it. I can’t change it. I really wish I could. But that’s not where we are. And so I’m here to add guardrails. I’m here to add enforcement. I want to make this work.” 

Then-Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, advocated for paid family leave on the West Steps of the State Capitol on Jan. 6, 2018. The senator wants to pass a paid family leave bill in 2020. (Photo by John Herrick)

Meanwhile, it’s becoming more clear who will get covered under the program and who will be left out. 

Karla Gonzales Garcia, the policy and program director for COLOR, a progressive advocacy group that represents minorities, said people like her could be left out of the program. 

When she was living in Telluride working three jobs in 2008, she said she was hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning. She said her short-term memory was diminished, she was hardly able to speak Spanish, let alone English, and couldn’t work. She needed to make frequent trips to Denver for hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Her family still lived in Peru, she said, and she relied on friends to get there.  

The draft bill’s definition of family only allows people to take time off work to help friends if they can prove some form of financial support or obligation to them. This, Gonzales Garcia said, makes it harder for immigrants to benefit from the program when their immediate family may not live in Colorado. 

The proposed bill also requires those seeking insurance to work at the same job for six months. She said this effectively excludes seasonal workers and those whose employment is more sporadic. 

“Let’s be real. This is going to help … middle-class, white workers. And honestly, great. That is awesome. I want people to get covered.” 

She paused, choking up. Those in the room were quiet and attentive, no longer typing on their computers or scribbling notes in the margins on the draft bill. 

“This is not going to help my community,” she said. “… This is not going to be helpful for the most marginalized among us.” 

Democrats in the room acknowledged her concerns. They’re on her side, they told her, but they’re walking a tightrope, balancing various interests and trying to get as many workers covered as politically possible and as soon as possible. 

“This is the most important thing — protecting the most vulnerable,” said Rep. Monica Duran, a Democrat from Wheat Ridge who’s sponsoring the bill and who said she’s worked multiple jobs most of her life. “We’ve been fighting pretty damn hard on that first floor for everything we’ve gotten so far. And we will continue that.” 

The first floor refers to the governor’s office in the state Capitol. Lawmakers work on the second. Polis drew a hard line on paid family leave when he announced he wants to see a privately run program. He told CPR a state-run program would put the state on the hook fiscally and take longer to implement. And, according to lawmakers, his administration wanted to see a longer, 12-month waiting period before workers qualified for benefits and pushed back on looser definitions of a family member. 

“The Governor is deeply committed to extending paid family and medical leave to workers across Colorado as soon as possible while ensuring the program works for our businesses small and large,” said Conor Cahill, a spokesman for the governor in an emailed statement. “Governor Polis appreciates the work of the bill sponsors that have sought to strike this balance and looks forward to building upon this proposal in the years ahead.”

Rep. Matt Gray, a Democrat from Broomfield, told those in the room the primary concessions made on the bill were to the governor’s office. 

“We have exhausted the political capital that we have. If there is a way that we can move this policy so that we can have 18 votes in the Senate and the governor’s signature, we’re open to a lot of those things.”

“We present this to you not as this is our utopian plan,” Gray said. “We present this to you as: We worked until we cried our eyes out and we believe we can get to 33, 18 and 1.” 

A bill needs 33 votes to pass the House, 18 to pass the Senate and the governor’s signature. Democrats took control of both chambers and the governor’s office with the 2018 election, a scenario known as a Democratic trifecta. 

Gonzales Garcia said she’s been working on paid family leave since 2016 and had higher expectations with Democrats in power. But, at the same time, she told The Colorado Independent after the meeting, she’s not surprised.

“I expected better. But we are not there. It just speaks to where we are in our state — the priorities of our state, the priorities are keeping the dynamics [of] power and money [in place].” 

“We know this. This is not the first time we experienced this,” she said. “I am going to keep fighting … Because our community deserves better.” 

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