PERRY: Colorado paid family leave is the right cause pitched at the wrong time

319

Timing is everything these days.

The problem with a flagging paid-family-leave bill in the Colorado Legislature isn’t that most people don’t see the need for it. Surely almost everyone agrees that workers who have babies or family medical emergencies absolutely should get paid time off.

The problem is that, right now, the cost for too many businesses is simply impossible, and under current proposals, that’s who’s expected to pay.

A tireless state Sen. Faith Winter and a handful of other state Democrats have doggedly pushed the important goal of paid family leave up a steep hill of resistance across the aisles at the Capitol.

Compelling stories about people having to be at work while their loved ones die alone — or face financial ruin because they choose to do the humane thing — are widespread and real. The need for this bill speaks to a state where the cost of living and the lack of livable wages make luxuries like caring for a dying loved one something reserved only for the state’s wealthiest residents.

The bottom line from business owners and managers I’ve talked to? It’s unaffordable at any cost right now because of Colorado’s health-care crisis.

While big corporations and government agencies click their tongues over the never-ending cost of providing health insurance to employees, medium and small businesses are increasingly nearing failure over the problem.

Coupled with skyrocketing costs of urban commercial real estate and the very real demand for higher wages, Colorado small-businesses are not in a rough place, they’re at a breaking point. An uncertain cost for either family-leave insurance or direct pay for employees leaving for weeks simply isn’t realistic in this state.

And while almost anyone asked would agree they want the benefit of getting weeks of paid time off for a family medical emergency or a pregnancy, everyone should answer this: “If you could have a pay raise or family leave benefits this year, which would you choose?”

Exactly.

What Winter and passionate family leave proponents are missing is the fact that as important as this program is, people without the need for family leave just aren’t making it in the metro area.

The cost of rent, the cost of crappy health insurance policies that virtually have no real benefit are pushing everyone who isn’t marginally wealthy off the financial edge of where they are now. It means middle-class families are now seriously struggling. It means that the working poor are becoming the working desperate — not just those with family medical emergencies, all of them.

And the small and medium businesses that employ them are becoming just as fraught.

Previous proposed bills would have created a new state-run insurance entity, similar to the state’s worker’s comp insurance, that raises revenue from both employees and employers. The problem is, no one really knows what the cost would be. Once the commitment is made, the bill must be paid.

More recent proposals would give companies flexibility in deciding whether to buy private family leave insurance for employees or self-fund paychecks for employees gone for up to 12 weeks at a time.

While the current measure is touted as a compromise, by design it would fail the people whose lives would not be just seriously affected, but crushed by a family medical emergency. Likewise, pushing struggling businesses into the greedy clutches of the private insurance industry would be as disastrous as the Affordable Care Act has been for a wide range of struggling businesses.

And if you ask business owners the same question as workers, “would you want to provide your employees with a pay raise or a family leave benefit right now,” I know which one I would pick.

Democrats need to set this aside before they permanently alienate too many people to this critical cause. They need to focus first on solving the bigger crisis of health care insurance and costs.

All logical people agree that not fixing a leaky roof is a recipe for disaster, but it’s hard to find people who think making it a priority makes sense when the place is on fire.

Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]