Colorado voters approved a ballot measure Tuesday that will establish paid family leave in the state, according to projections from The Associated Press. The measure made Colorado the ninth state to offer time off for workers after the arrival of a new child, as well as for workers dealing with an illness or caring for loved ones in an emergency. The policy is scheduled to go into effect in 2024, and would guarantee workers 12 weeks off.
Paid leave advocates fought to put the referendum on the ballot this year after efforts to pass a bill in the legislature were shot down in 2019 due to a massive lobbying effort from big business.
“We talk a lot about money in politics, and this is a story of where lobby money inside the building continued to defeat something that was so popular,” Faith Winter, a Democratic state senator who supported the referendum, told HuffPost. “When you give the power to the voters, you end up getting really good policy that helps all of us.”
The vote was expected, following polling that showed strong support in the state, and comes at a time when the issue of paid leave is taking on a new urgency during the pandemic. Parents around the country are struggling to work and care for children at home attending virtual school, while others are caring for loved ones who are sick with COVID-19.
Without paid leave, workers — particularly women — are often forced out of work altogether. In September alone, 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce entirely, some because they had no choice with children at home from school.
Advocates had tried for years to get a paid leave measure passed in the state legislature and were hopeful that with Democratic majorities in both chambers and in the governor’s office, they’d succeed last year. Gov. Jared Polis had even said that paid family leave was part of his agenda.
But proposed legislation failed after massive pushback from big businesses. Of all the bills before the legislature last year, the paid family leave bill drew the most attention from lobbyists, according to one analysis by The Colorado Sun.
Businesses argue that the policy would be too costly, requiring a whole new infrastructure in the state to implement it, and that it would be hard on small businesses, said Loren Furman, senior vice president of state and federal relations at the Colorado Chamber of Commerce.
“We worked hard to try and find a compromise,” she said, emphasizing that the chamber does support paid leave.
Lobbyists fought line by line over different details in the bill, such as how long the leave period would be, what the exemption for small businesses would look like, and who would be covered, Winter said.
“Every single organization or lobbyist had their own little thing they wanted to change,” she said.
Frustrated with the pushback, advocates decided to put the issue to voters. A yes or no ballot initiative was just simpler, Winter said, noting that at least 200 mostly small businesses backed the referendum.
Referendums on workers’ rights are becoming an increasingly common strategy when the legislature proves immovable. In other states, voters have decided on raising the minimum wage and paid sick leave. Colorado has a long history with these kinds of measures. Proposition 118 is the first ballot initiative on paid family leave in the country, and Colorado was the first state in the nation to put marijuana legalization on the ballot in 2012.
Collecting the signatures needed to get paid family leave on the ballot was a particular challenge because of the pandemic, said Jared Make, vice president of the advocacy group A Better Balance, who advocated for the law. Activists had to talk to voters in person while wearing face masks, and they handed out single-use pens. Still, the public health crisis helped fuel interest in the bill, as working parents in the state and around the country have struggled to balance taking care of their children at home with doing their jobs.
“Understanding that we have a real caregiving crisis in this country led to a significant amount of enthusiasm to make sure it qualified for the ballot,” Make said of paid family leave.
Urgency around the pandemic did lead Colorado to pass one of the best paid sick leave laws in the country in July, Make said. That policy, which requires employers to provide six days of time off, takes effect on Jan. 1, 2021. It was able to get through the legislature because it’s a far simpler policy, Winter said.
Though the chamber said the costs of Colorado’s paid family leave program would be too high, other states have had success. The Colorado benefit is modeled on similar policies in place in California, New York and New Jersey.
The Colorado policy will be paid for through a social insurance program, funded by a payroll tax that both employers and workers pay into. Workers pay an average of about $3.83 a week. Small-business owners with fewer than 10 employees are exempt from paying the tax at all.
The state will start collecting premiums in 2023, and the benefit will kick in the following year. At that time, workers who need paid family leave can get anywhere between 65% and 90% of their pay, up to $1,100 per week. There’s even an extra four weeks of leave available for people who experience complications during childbirth.
“I hear over and over that everybody believes we need paid family leave, and I believe this is by far the best solution,” said Katharine Knarreborg, president of Merlin Instrument Company, a small manufacturing firm with just three employees in the Denver area.
Knarreborg said that the skilled workers she hires expect to get paid family leave and that she needs to offer the benefit to stay competitive against bigger tech companies. She’s had to try and buy insurance policies on the private market to cover the benefit on her own dime, and it hasn’t been easy. The new state policy will be more affordable and simpler to deal with, she said.
Last summer, one of Knarreborg’s employees took 12 weeks of maternity leave. Knarreborg said her company hired a part-time temporary worker to fill in during the employee’s absence. Still, this was better than going out and finding someone else to hire.
“The reality is, it takes me three to four months to find, hire and train someone new, she said. “So by the time I would’ve gotten someone up to speed, she was already back to work.”