Local officials who have been working toward better benefits for new parents say they are in support of Proposition 118, the state ballot measure that would create a fund for paid family leave for all workers.
The citizen-led initiative would allow for up to 12 paid weeks off for new parents, as well as for employees who need to care for themselves or other families facing a severe illness. Funding for the program would come out of a mandatory income tax.
Shirley Ritter, director of Aspen’s Kids First department, says that currently, new parents whose employers don’t provide paid leave are faced with a heartbreaking choice between losing income or losing out on time with their newborn. It is not uncommon for lower-wage earners to be back to work within two weeks after childbirth.
“It’s the people that can't afford to lose those wages that go back a lot sooner,” Ritter said.
In Aspen, child care options were so limited prior to the pandemic that families would put themselves on a day care’s waitlist before the mother even became pregnant.
“There just aren't that many infant spaces — it's not even an option. And then, what do you do? This could give everybody just a little more breathing room,” she said.
Even as the pandemic has allowed more parents to work from home, many of the jobs that are deemed to be part of the essential workforce are lower-wage and predominantly female-occupied fields. Katie Creedon, It's About Kids network manager, said those essential jobs often do not come with paid leave.
“So many essential workers — child care workers, restaurant workers — are women,” she said. “And women are having babies. That’s a compounded issue we are seeing in COVID. Which is why this is such an important time to work on this legislation, it’s that impossible choice.”
Jacy Montoya Price, advocacy director for the Colorado Children's Campaign, said there are long-term effects to separating a newborn from its mother, whereas there are measurable benefits when parents are able to spend the first 12 weeks of their babies’ lives together.
“Those benefits show not just in the immediate terms but over a child and a family’s lifespan. The economic self-sufficiency that a family that had paid family medical leave [is] able to enjoy years later looks different,” she said. “The bonding time between the parent and the kids — the fourth trimester — is so essential for child development.”
Along with 12 weeks of paid parental leave, Proposition 118 offers paid leave for instances of serious health conditions affecting the employee or a family member, if a family member is called into active-duty military service and needs assistance, or to allow for someone to deftly leave an abusive living situation.
At a time when the coronavirus is threatening jobs and the health of the workforce, Montoya Price said Coloradans are now aware of how helpful paid leave can be.
“The COVID pandemic has shown people firsthand that they are going to have a situation in their life where they need time off to take care of themselves or a loved one,” she said.
To supplement income for those who need to take leave without it costing their employers, Proposition 118 would set up a fund that all workers, statewide, contribute to via a 0.9% income tax, known as a premium. The employer, however, needs to contribute at least 50% of those funds. Businesses with fewer than 10 employees, governments and companies that already offer a similar benefit may opt out of contributing to the premiums.
“It applies to nearly every worker across the state, and both the employer and the employee pay in,” said Montoya Price. “That’s so important, because so many people in Colorado are employed by small businesses, so it's essential that they are included in any plan we have.”
Under the 0.9% mandate, workers making $30,000 a year would pay $135, for instance. The tax is capped at $1,455 — which means anyone making $161,700 or higher will be paying the flat rate. The state payments made during someone’s family leave would be proportionate to that worker’s income. A graduated wage replacement system means that lower income workers would recoup a higher percent of their salary than higher earners.
Benefitting seasonal and part-time workers
Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury is a local advocate for parental leave. Last year, she led the charge in creating a family leave program for all county employees.
“I think this program is structured really well to balance the needs of employees and employers across the state,” she said of Proposition 118.
She said it is impossible to separate the paid leave conversation from the one surrounding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“We saw that that ability to have income replacement during your most dire time is crucial to keeping people in their homes, to letting them pay for their health insurance. All these other really important social objectives are retained and fall into place if that income replacement exists when people are sick or need to care for family members,” she said.
She sees Proposition 118 as being uniquely beneficial to the local population. Seasonal, part-time work and self-employed gig workers are all eligible for the benefit.
“Service industry folks who have nothing — have no safety net when they get sick — could enter into a program where they pay into it a little bit over time, and it goes with them if they change jobs, so they don’t lose all of that investment,” McNicholas Kury said. “And they can use it when they need it and not have to worry about getting kicked out of their housing or anything like that because they can't pay.”
Because the benefit is tied to the individual employee and not passed through the employer, someone can qualify even when they are new to a job.
“Another thing that I think is really great about this program, should it pass, is it offers portability, which I think is going to be so crucial for Pitkin County residents. Because how often do people switch jobs around here?” she said.
McNicholas Kury acknowledged that any hit to a paycheck can be harmful, especially for minimum wage earners, but she said the assurance of knowing funds would be available if needed is a worthwhile tradeoff.
“At some level, these dollars could be harmful for employers and employees. If you are talking about $30 a month, that could be a bill for an employee,” she said.
But for companies, even small ones, she sees it as a small investment for long-term payouts
“One of the benefits is now, an employer of any size doesn’t have to pay for both the employee and a replacement employee while that employee is on leave,” she said. “The employee just accesses that insurance fund. The employer now can take the money that they were paying to hire a replacement or a temporary employee.”
Olga Robak is the communications director for the Colorado Families First campaign, in support of Proposition 118. She said its main detractors are large companies, even though many of them offer paid family leave as part of their benefits package.
“When big businesses can offer paid leave, they compete much better. [Proposition 118] will actually level the playing field for small businesses — the ones that cannot afford paid leave out-of-pocket because those policies are very expensive or have a minimum number of employees they have to enroll,” she said. “This proposition will create the easiest and most affordable way to offer this benefit and allow those smallest businesses to compete with a large corporation.”
A state task force analyzed similar programs in other states in order to formulate the language for Proposition 118. If passed, another year would be spent creating the specifics for implementing the initiative and a state office that would oversee it. Additionally, the premiums would be taken out of Coloradans’ paychecks for a full year before benefits would be doled out in order to create a buffer in the fund.
Robak said it is estimated that less than 5% of the workforce would become recipients of the benefit in a given year. But, she continued, right now, a majority of Colorado workers have no access to income replacement if an emergency were to happen, or when starting a family.
“Four out of five Coloradans do not have access to paid family and medical leave, which means they are forced to make heartbreaking decisions between putting their families first or paying their rent or mortgage or putting food on the table,” said Robak. “That’s just not something that Coloradans should have to deal with, especially in the most crucial, stressful moment of their lives.”