Paid family leave supporters in Colorado push forward on petition effort

Efforts to create a paid family and medical leave program in Colorado ran aground at the statehouse again this year with coronavirus partly to blame. With the sponsors of that would-be legislation backing them, a group of supporters on Monday formally launched their campaign to get paid leave on Colorado’s November ballot and passed into law.

The group, Colorado Families First, has been perusing on a ballot measure since January, working in parallel as Democratic lawmakers tried — and failed — to create a leave program through the General Assembly. With the pandemic-interrupted legislative session now over, the group has until Aug. 3 to collect 124,632 valid signatures to get its Initiative 283 before Colorado voters this fall.

“Whether it is to take care of a seriously ill loved one, to recover from an extended illness or to welcome a new baby, all of us will at some point in time need time off from our jobs to focus on our families,” Carmen Medrano, a member of the Colorado Families First coalition said during a webinar Monday.

Medrano noted that roughly 80% of Colorado workers don’t have access to paid leave. If those people have a baby or a serious illness and run out of sick or vacation time, they must either return to work or risk losing their jobs.

Initiative 283 would provide most Colorado workers with up to 12 weeks of partial pay and job security in the event they need to take a leave of absence from their jobs. That total goes up to 16 weeks if the employee has certain complications related to pregnancy or childbirth.

The insurance program would be funded by a .9%  tax on employees’ wages with the premiums split down the middle between workers and their employers. Companies with fewer than 10 employees would be exempt. Collections would begin in 2023.

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and the businesses it represents have been staunchly opposed to a state-run paid leave program like the one Initiative 283 would create. On Monday, executive director Kelly Brough said between paid leave policies available through private insurance companies, traditional paid sick and vacation time packages and the option to self insure workers’ leave, businesses in Colorado already have free-market alternatives to a new state program. Right now, the state’s focus should be helping the more than 568,000 people who have filed unemployment claims since the pandemic began get back to work, she said, not charging employers and employees more.

“For us, when we look at the proposal to create a state-run paid leave program, I would say that we continue to hear from employers and employees who have a lot of concerns about their paychecks being reduced,” Brough said.

Toby Gadd, owner of Fort Collins’ “bean-to-bar” chocolate business Nuance Chocolate, is supporting the measure. With just 11 employees including himself and his wife, Gadd could likely seek an exemption from the measure if it were to pass, but he sees providing paid leave as the right thing to do morally and from a business perspective. It cosst more to train new employees than it does to support those you already have.

“I need to have regular employees and to not to have to lose an employee because they’re sick,” Gadd said during Monday’s webinar.

The 2020 session marked the sixth time Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, and Democratic colleagues have tried to get paid leave into the Colorado Revised Statutes.

This year, the legislation was never even formally introduced. In February, Rep. Monica Duran and Sen. Angela Williams dropped off as bill sponsors after learning of concessions that would have created a program that did not cover part-time, gig-economy and some low-income workers. New sponsors, Sen. Dominick Moreno and Rep. Yadira Caraveo, eventually joined on but before they could to debut their bill with Winter and Rep. Matt Gray, the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily froze the legislative session.

Conversations with the business community, which has opposed these proposals, all but stopped, and early last month the legislators acknowledged that no bill would be passed in 2020.

A spokeswoman for Colorado Families First said in an email Monday that supporters “don’t anticipate having any trouble getting the necessary signatures.”

The campaign is encouraging people to request a petition by mail or to print one out at home, sign it and send it back. Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order clearing the way for remote and electronic petitioning during the pandemic. Groups, including the Denver Metro Chamber, have come out in opposition to the remote signature gathering. Brough said it violates the state constitution and puts groups with less access to technology — including seniors, people in rural areas and people of color — at a disadvantage.

A Denver District Court Judge upheld Polis’ order last month but the issue is now set to be considered by the Colorado Supreme Court.

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