Prop. 118 asks voters whether to back paid family leave plan

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On Election Day, voters will also scrutinize a proposal to establish paid family and medical leave benefits for Colorado’s workers. 

If Proposition 118 wins a majority of the votes cast, businesses with more than 10 employees — and workers themselves — will have to pay a tax funding the program. Bosses won’t be able to retaliate against employees for requesting paid time off to care for sick loved ones, undergo treatments or begin raising a child. 

Proponents of the measure include the American Association of Retired Persons, Democratic lawmakers and Colorado Families First, a committee created to support the measure. Olga Robak, a spokesperson, said the measure would establish much-needed benefits that most workers don’t enjoy while helping employers provide those benefits. 

She told the Sentinel “people are skipping chemotherapy treatments to go back to work, mothers are going back to work within two weeks of giving birth, and Coloradans make life and death decisions about their loved ones from their work breakrooms.”

Robak said the proposal is especially timely during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Opponents of the measure include conservative advocacy groups, trade groups and chambers of commerce. 

Dave Davia is a spokesperson for Not Now Colorado, a group registered to oppose Prop. 118. He said workers deserve paid time off for medical and family matters but that this initiative would bankrupt the state and businesses at a particularly dire time. 

Under Prop. 118, workers would be entitled to up to 12 weeks of paid family leave or medical leave. These benefits wouldn’t void an employee’s existing paid-time-off benefits. Workers could also use an additional four weeks of leave for pregnancy or childbirth complications. 

To pay for the benefits, up to half of the cost would come out of workers’ paychecks through a payroll tax to the state government. An employer would pay the other half. The exact cost would be adjusted over the years; for 2023 and 2024, the plan would cost 0.9 percent of an employee’s wage. Split in half, that would deduct $180 annually from an employee making $40,000 per year. 

The dollars would travel to the state government and back to an employee after successfully applying for the paid time off. 

The size of weekly paychecks during paid leave would also depend on how much the employee makes per year. For a worker making $500 a week, the benefits will pay out no more than $450 per week. For someone making $1,000 a week, that cap is $768 per week. 

To handle the program, state government would create a new department inside the Department of Labor and Employment. During its first full year of implementation, the 2023-2024 fiscal year, the taxes would land more than $1 billion to the state budget. That year, state spending would increase by more than $520 million to pay out benefits and review applications. 

Local governments could opt out of the program, and so could businesses with less than 10 people. Robak said planners settled on that threshold to allow “the smallest of businesses” the choice to pay into the program. 

Robak said the COVID-19 pandemic means more people than ever need paid sick time. She cited a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ estimation that four out of five Coloradan workers aren’t provided paid and family leave. 

Nationwide, low-income workers are less likely to enjoy paid family and sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

“This pandemic has shown us that ensuring people have the economic stability to recover from an extended illness protects our communities and our state. Coloradans have waited long enough for this policy to pass legislatively and we finally have a chance to pass this important policy ourselves,” Robak said. 

Colorado lawmakers already mandated that employers provide some sick leave beginning in Jan. 2021 because of the pandemic. 

Davia, the chief executive officer of the Rocky Mountain Mechanical Contractors Association, said the legislative analysis under-estimated Prop. 118’s cost burdens on the state government and local businesses. 

Davia said the Proposition, while well-intentioned, is rife with logistical problems. For example, employees could spread out their paid time off when they pleased, he said. That might mean “every Friday,” Davia said. 

Robak said that’s not true. If Prop. 118 passes, the department of labor will define how an employee applies for family or medical leave, she said. That application would bypass the employer — to take a boss out of the equation — and travel into the new state department, where an analyst would review evidence. 

For a victim of sexual assault or domestic violence, who would be eligible for the new, paid leave, that might include submitting a restraining order document. 

In his criticism, Davia also said the state won’t be able to pay out benefits if too many employees take them at the same time. 

“This program is broke from the beginning and won’t be there when employees need it the most,” he said. “Coloradans simply can’t afford a $1.3 billion tax.”

He noted that state lawmakers already had to cut more than $3 billion from the state’s budget in July because of the pandemic-induced recession. 

Robak said a bi-partisan task force working on Prop. 118 estimated the state budget can handle the burden. 

In its own campaign, Colorado Families First is buoyed heavily by so-called dark money. The Washington, D.C.-based Sixteen Thirty Fund contributed about $2.9 million of the group’s more than $3.1 million funds raised as of Sept. 21. It’s a fund supporting liberal causes that does not disclose its donors.