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Will Colorado choose to behave like a civilized nation? We’ve begun to show the will to do so.
A pandemic petition
Proposition 118, Paid Medical and Family Leave Insurance, is an initiated state statute. That means voters drafted the bill and gathered enough signatures to put it on the ballot. To do that, they had to collect 124,632 valid signatures. (Fun fact: that number is set at 5% of the votes cast for Colorado secretary of state, all candidates, in the previous general election.)
That’s a lot of signatures even in ordinary times. Petitioners are typically advised to gather at least 50% more signatures than required because so many signatures ultimately fail validation. Because of the difficulty and danger of gathering signatures during the pandemic, Gov. Jared Polis attempted to amend the rules for doing so by issuing an executive order allowing signatures to be gathered via postal service and email. But the Colorado Supreme Court struck down the order on July 1, resetting signature gathering efforts for all initiatives. Most citizens’ initiatives called it quits.
Undaunted, proponents of paid medical and family leave raised and spent over $2 million to pay petitioners to gather signatures in person. In Longmont, signature gatherers could be seen almost every weekend in the King Soopers parking lot on South Hover Street, masked, armed with stacks of petitions, buckets of pens, and plenty of hand sanitizer and disinfectant for the used pens. According to BallotPedia, every required signature cost $17.88.
What are the provisions of Proposition 118?
While the federal Family and Medical Leave Act protects workers’ jobs while they take up to 12 weeks of leave for illness of themselves or a family member, or around the birth or adoption of a child, federal law requires unpaid leave. Too many workers can’t afford to take advantage of FMLA because they can’t go without wages. Proposition 118 provides a wage support insurance program for Colorado workers. Here are the main provisions:
12 weeks of paid leave
Funded via a payroll deduction
50% paid by employer, 50% paid by employee
Employer may fund 100%
Maximum benefit $1,100 a week for the first year benefits are available.
If Prop 118 passes, premium payments will begin on Jan. 1, 2023, but benefits will not become available until Jan. 1, 2024, to allow time for the fund to build up. Not every worker receives the maximum benefit: A worker on leave can expect to receive 90% of his or her average weekly wage, up to the cap.
For the first two years of the plan, the total premium will be 0.9% of wages (the worker’s payroll deduction being 0.45%). After the first two years, both premium and benefits are slightly adjusted based on the plan’s payout experience to keep the program actuarially sound. States with similar programs have found that typical experience is favorable, meaning premiums tend to be reduced as the plan matures. A complete description of the plan can be found here.
How do we stack up against other nations and states?
Most developed nations offer paid family and medical leave. The Pew Research Center reports that of 41 developed nations, the U.S. ranks dead last in providing parental leave benefits. If Proposition 118 passes, Colorado will join five other states and the District of Columbia in offering paid parental leave.
We are, if anything, worse off when it comes to sick leave for employees. The Center for Economic and Policy Research finds that of 22 wealthy nations, the U.S. is again the only one that does not guarantee any paid sick time.
This situation persists even though strong evidence exists that paid sick leave is good for business. U.S. workers go to work even when ill — prolonging their own illness, passing it on to others, and losing productivity because they feel too bad to properly do their jobs. These data were collected for workers with flu-like illnesses, but it is likely that part of the reason for the U.S.’s terrible performance in controlling the spread of COVID-19 since people are used to working sick.
Pros and cons
These arguments are extracted from the 2020 State Ballot Information Booklet (Blue Book).
Paid leave has a positive impact on the health of Colorado families, especially new parents and those with health issues. Research has shown that offering paid leave to expectant and new mothers decreases the risk of infant mortality, and allowing parents time to bond with their children will positively affect child development. Most individuals will need to take leave to care for themselves or a loved one at some point during their careers, and this measure allows employees to do so with some financial support and job protection. The measure ensures that Coloradans will not be forced to choose between their health and their livelihood.
Paid leave will increase employment opportunities for Coloradans, and benefit the state’s economy. Only 18% of U.S. workers currently have access to paid leave. Employees without paid leave risk being demoted or even losing their jobs if they have to take off work due to serious illnesses or to care for family members. This measure allows caretakers and those with chronic health issues to join and remain in the workforce, which will strengthen Colorado’s economy. All workers deserve paid leave benefits, no matter their income level, the type of work they do, or the size of their employer
This measure places a financial and regulatory burden on employers to navigate the program’s complex requirements. Businesses face increased costs to accommodate paid leave and new state-mandated sick leave obligations. The measure unfairly requires large businesses, but not certain small businesses or local governments, to pay premiums to fund the program. In addition, small businesses may be discouraged from growing in order to avoid premium costs. In the end, it will be up to employers and employees to bear the cost of an uncertain and expensive new government program.
This measure requires employees to pay into a program that they may never benefit from using. Employees are already faced with job uncertainty in the current economy, and cannot afford to lose part of their salary or other benefits. If the demand for the benefit is higher than anticipated, employees will be expected to contribute an even larger percentage of wages in the future or sacrifice other workplace gains.
Vote yes on Proposition 118.
The United States has lost respect and prestige and influence among the powerful and civilized nations of the world. It would be good for our children to grow up as we did, knowing that we live in a good place, admired and looked to for leadership by the rest of the world. We have a long journey back to that place. We can begin by showing respect to our working people, by treating them humanely and providing security for their families.
Colorado is already a model for the nation in many ways. Let this be one more way.
Note: Marcia Martin is a member of the Longmont City Council. Her views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the council.