From left: State Rep. Matt Gray, D-Broomfield, Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, Rep. Yadira Caraveo, D-Thornton, and Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, at a signature gathering event for Initiative 283 on July 8, 2020, in Westminster. (Courtesy of Colorado Families First)
Colorado voters on Nov. 3 approved Proposition 118, establishing a wide-ranging insurance program covering paid family and medical leave for workers. But don’t expect your paycheck to take a hit — or count on the new benefits — for another couple of years.
Allowing time for the state to recover from a coronavirus-induced economic downturn, the measure delays mandatory premiums for most employers until 2023 and benefits till the following year.
The ballot measure had garnered 57.2% of votes counted by 10 p.m. Nov. 4, according to unofficial results from the secretary of state’s office.
“This is a victory for hard-working families across our state in a moment when so many are struggling to balance family, paying the bills and keeping our community safe,” Ashley Panelli, co-chair of the Colorado Families First campaign for paid family and medical leave, said in a statement shortly after the Associated Press called the race Nov. 3.
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Colorado Democrats tried for years to pass legislation creating such a program but failed to unite behind a plan. Opponents warned an insurance program would cost jobs and hurt the state’s economy by burdening employers.
“Our coalition has worked on this policy for the better part of a decade and in that time we’ve talked to thousands of Coloradans, whose stories and perseverance have brought us to this moment,” Panelli said. “After lobbyists and big monied interests were successful at killing this year after year in the state legislature, we knew the path to victory would be taking this strong and affordable policy directly to the voters.”
There’s still miles to go on family leave — the next few years will include educating Coloradans about the new requirements and standing up the program infrastructure — but the destination is finally assured. Starting Jan. 1, 2024, eligible Colorado workers will have access to as many as 12 weeks of paid leave per year. An employee becomes eligible to use the benefits after earning $2,500 in wages subject to the insurance premium.
In the first two years of the program, that premium will amount to 0.9% of an employee’s wages. Premiums are paid by the employer, which can choose to take up to 50% of the premium out of the employee’s paycheck — or pay the entire premium on behalf of the employee. Businesses with fewer than 10 people on their payroll don’t have to pay the employer portion of the premium.
A worker making $52,000 a year can expect to pay $234 annually into the program, or $4.50 a week, if their employer doesn’t cover their half of the premium. The state may increase the premium in 2025, up to 1.2% of wages, but the maximum annual premium is capped for the first two years at $1,455 and after that at around $2,092 (it only applies to taxable income).
In exchange, workers can take paid leave for the following reasons:
• Birth or adoption of a child (an extra four weeks is available for pregnancy or childbirth complications)
• Serious health condition for the employee or a family member
• Circumstances related to a family member’s active-duty military service
• The employee faces domestic abuse, sexual assault or abuse, or stalking
The amount of benefits varies based on a worker’s normal wages and the state average weekly wage. An employee can receive 90% earnings for the portion of their wages that’s equal to 50% of the state average, and 50% earnings for the portion of their wages above the state average. The maximum weekly benefit is $1,100 for 2024, and 90% of the state average after that.
For example, someone who normally makes $500 a week would receive a weekly benefit of $450 while on paid family or medical leave. Someone who normally makes $1,000 would receive $768 a week, and someone who normally makes $2,000 would receive $1,100 a week.
Employers that already offer paid leave benefits equal or greater to the state’s don’t have to participate, and their employees don’t have to pay the premiums. Likewise, self-employed people and local governments can opt out.
There are some benefits available before the ballot measure takes effect. A new state law, effective in 2021, requires Colorado employers with 16 or more employees to provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to 48 hours of paid sick leave per year. The law applies to all employers starting in 2022.
Program finds support in surprising places
Since 2015, Republicans and business groups have been the most vocal opponents of legislation to create a paid family and medical leave insurance program. However, even after Democrats gained control of both chambers of the Colorado Legislature in 2018, they failed for two years to agree on the details of a plan.
Sen. Faith Winter — a Democrat from Westminster who led efforts each year to pass a bill — and other lawmakers in favor of the plan gave up on their latest effort in May, throwing their support behind the ballot measure instead.
An insurance program for paid leave turned out to be more popular among Colorado voters than at the state Capitol.
Unofficial results showed most of Colorado’s more populous counties had approved Proposition 118 — even some reliably Republican jurisdictions, including El Paso County, where the measure was ahead by just over 1 percentage point as of 10 p.m. Nov. 4. Similarly, Proposition 118 was ahead by fewer than 200 votes in Weld County, where there are 30,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats.
Douglas County, which has been ranked the wealthiest county in the state, was an exception. Proposition 118 lost there with 53% of people voting against it in unofficial results.
Meanwhile, the paid leave program wasn’t popular with Mesa County on the Western Slope, but voters did approve it in some rural areas, including Garfield, La Plata and Routt counties.
Voters rejected Proposition 118 in Montrose and Fremont counties and on Colorado’s Eastern Plains.
Lowest-paid workers, minority groups to benefit
An analysis by the Colorado Fiscal Institute for Colorado Families First found that people making minimum wage comprise those least likely to have access to paid family leave, with about one-twentieth of the lowest 10% of earners in the United States able to take paid leave after the birth of a child, for example.
The Colorado Fiscal Institute, a 501(c)(3) research and advocacy organization, looked at data from the federal government’s National Compensation Survey and found that as wages increased, the likelihood a worker would have access to paid family leave steadily increased.
“If you compare the bottom 10% — the minimum wage earners in the United States — to the top 10% of wage earners … the top 10% of wage earners have seven times more access to paid family leave,” Chris Stiffler, an economist for the Colorado Fiscal Institute, said during a virtual roundtable in August. “So you can definitely tell the higher wage workers are going to have more access to family leave already.”
Stiffler pointed out that Black and Latino workers are underrepresented among the highest wage earners in Colorado, and overrepresented among low wage earners — meaning an insurance program for family leave would benefit those groups.
Maggie Gomez, deputy director of the Center for Health Progress and chair of Colorado’s Health Equity Commission, told Newsline at the time that paid leave was key to reducing health disparities among racial and ethnic minorities.
“It’s not genetically connected or biologically connected that Black and Latinx folks are experiencing COVID at higher rates,” Gomez said. “It really is about the other pieces related to those social determinants of health.”
Those include the ability to take paid time off during a medical emergency — especially for workers in essential jobs such as retail and food service — plus equitable access to health care and health insurance, she said.
“The voters have spoken. Proposition 118’s historic win shows that when Coloradans see the need for something, they come together to make it happen,” Winter said in Colorado Family First’s statement. Winter spearheaded efforts around a leave program at the Capitol.
“Coloradans believe in putting family first, so it’s no wonder we are the first state to pass paid leave at the ballot box,” she added.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the maximum weekly premium and provide additional context about paid leave in Colorado.
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