On the last day of Colorado’s legislative session, lawmakers sent the governor several bills that they hope will provide relief to Coloradans affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
The bills are aimed at helping Coloradans struggling during what’s both a public health crisis and an economic one, as many have to make decisions about their health and whether they can afford to miss work or, if they’ve lost their jobs, how they can still pay their bills.
One of the first bills introduced to tackle at least one of those problems was Senate Bill 205, which requires all employers to provide COVID-19 sick leave to their workers through the end of the year. Beginning Jan. 1, all Colorado employers with more than 15 workers will have to allow employees to accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours they work up to 48 hours of sick leave. Those with 15 or fewer employees will have to offer the accrual starting in 2022.
“When people are forced to choose between their health and their income we all lose,” said Jake Williams, executive director of Healthier Colorado, in a statement. “This bill will help us protect the wellbeing of our communities and ensure our economy can stand resilient against our current and any future public health crisis.”
Workers can use the leave for mental and physical illnesses, to get care for themselves or family members, and in cases of closures because of public health orders.
Democrats also passed legislation to expand unemployment benefits for Coloradans who leave their jobs because of child care or working conditions during the pandemic.
The legislative session was suspended March 13 after Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency for the pandemic. It resumed May 26 with a new set of coronavirus-related bills — and some of which passed on the very last day.
“We spent a lot of time planning how to help workers and small businesses and families impacted by the shutdown and the health crisis, the front line workers, in a pretty comprehensive way,” said House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver.
One bill, House Bill 1414, addresses the problem of price gouging during public health and economic crises by giving the attorney general enforcement authority.
A bill that protects whistleblowers from retaliation during a public health emergency also received final passage Monday. It will protect employees who raise concerns about their workplace health or safety, and it also protects them from retaliation or discrimination if they wear their own masks or other protective equipment at their workplace.
Lawmakers allocated $20 million of Colorado’s federal money to small businesses and created a $250 million small business loan fund. Another $20 million went to housing assistance and $4.8 million for utility assistance.
Mental health and substance abuse programs received $15.2 million, but Senate President Leroy Garcia of Pueblo said lawmakers plan to do even more for mental health services next year. Several mental health bills were placed on the back burner after the session resumed in May, including a bill to cover mental health wellness exams. Gov. Jared Polis said he didn’t want more requirements put on insurers.
Additionally, $500,000 went to domestic violence programs and another $500,000 to the 2-1-1 line, which connects Coloradans to health and human services programs.
Although lawmakers killed hundreds of their own bills as they tried to prioritize bills in their shortened time, some Republicans — who are in the minority — felt Democrats extended their focus and did not leave them enough room to pass their own bills related to the pandemic.
“Several of us asked for late bills regarding COVID to protect businesses,” said Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley. “I’m still waiting to hear the answer whether I got one or not.”
But Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg said the conversations were bipartisan and focused on helping the majority of Coloradans. At a news conference Monday, the Boulder Democrat said lawmakers worked with businesses and people affected and received bipartisan support on many measures.
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