Giving Thought: Paid Medical and Family Leave will support Colorado families

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen

Kids are more likely to succeed in life when they grow up in stable, loving and economically secure families.

One way we can help ensure a healthy start for newborns in Colorado is to give their parents paid family leave from work. Every parent should have the opportunity to welcome an infant into the home for the first few weeks of the child’s life, and not to worry that they’ll lose income or employment as a result.

Proposition 118 will be on the Nov. 3 ballot in Colorado, and it presents an opportunity to give our children a leg up, by enabling parents to stay at home for 12 weeks after the arrival of a newborn. The initiative would also allow family members to care for an ill relative or recover from an illness themselves.

“Lack of access to paid leave increases the likelihood that families with new children will be financially insecure,” said Sarah Barnes, manager of special policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “When children are born into families experiencing financial insecurity, it impacts their health outcomes, social-emotional and cognitive development, and economic outcomes later in life.”

Proposition 118 calls for both employees and employers to pay 0.9% of the employee’s wages (0.45% each) into a statewide fund. Think of those payments as insurance premiums. When an employee decides to take paid family leave, the fund would kick in, like insurance, with payments that vary depending on the employee’s salary. Low-income workers, defined as those earning less than half of the state’s average pay, would receive 90% of their salaries.

After 12 weeks (or 16 if there are pregnancy or childbirth complications), employees would return to work, their job intact. Employers would not pay the premiums during the employee’s leave and would therefore see a temporary savings. And workers wouldn’t end up torn between work and family when they’re desperately needed at home.

“People shouldn’t have to make an impossible choice between their job, their health and their loved ones,” said Ashley Panelli, Senior Paid Leave Organizer at 9to5 Colorado. “Right now 87 percent of workers in Colorado do not have access to a benefit like this.”

As a result, Panelli added, one in four working mothers end up going back to work just two weeks after giving birth.

“We’ve always supported this issue because of the maternal health benefits, the child development benefits and because of family economic security,” said Barnes of the Children’s Campaign. “Those are the three areas where we see this as an important policy.”

Recognizing that many Colorado businesses are struggling through the coronavirus pandemic, the premiums wouldn’t begin until January 2023. Small employers with fewer than 10 workers would be exempt from the premiums, but employers with deeper pockets could choose to pay up to 100% of the premiums.

State and local government agencies would be included in the plan, although local governments including school districts could opt out.

Eight other states and Washington D.C. have similar programs, and advocates say most programs have had lower-than-expected costs while boosting employee retention and morale. Colorado’s plan borrows different elements from the other states but doesn’t exactly mimic any specific plan.

The Colorado General Assembly has tried numerous times to agree on a paid family leave program, and the coronavirus essentially derailed an effort during the 2020 legislative session. By taking this issue directly to the voters, advocates believe they can make this improvement happen.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.