Since 2014, the state of Colorado has tried repeatedly—and unsuccessfully—to pass paid family leave legislation. Amid the pandemic, advocates pushed to get it on the ballot instead, to give voters a chance to weigh in. On Tuesday, Colorado residents cast their vote for Proposition 118, securing one of the most expansive paid family leave programs in the country.
Under the new program, Colorado residents will be entitled to 12 weeks of paid leave if they need to take care of a sick loved one, recover from an illness, or tend to a new child. Family members of active-duty military personnel and victims of domestic violence or sexual assault are also covered by the program. Those who are pregnant or face childbirth complications will be eligible for an additional four weeks of paid leave. When the program fully takes effect in 2024, workers could receive up to 90% of their weekly pay, albeit no more than $1,100 per week.
As the ninth state to establish such a program, Colorado follows in the footsteps of states like California, Massachusetts, and New York, which have enacted paid family leave laws over the past two decades. But Colorado is the first state to do so through a ballot measure, which could pave the way for advocates to use a similar tack in other states where legislative enthusiasm may not match public support for paid family leave. Even in the midst of an economic downturn, more than 160 small businesses in Colorado endorsed the ballot measure, along with nearly every Democrat in the state legislature.
For lawmakers in Colorado, the sticking point with paid family leave legislation has been how to pay for the program, which is projected to cost $1.2 billion. In fact, the program passed through the ballot measure is more comprehensive than the legislation that was being considered earlier this year—a compromise bill that wasn’t exactly the state-run solution advocates had in mind. Two Democratic co-sponsors even pulled their names from the bill, citing concerns that it would not adequately address the needs of the state’s most disadvantaged workers. When the pandemic hit, the Colorado legislature opted to enact a paid sick leave law rather than moving forward with the paid family leave legislation.
As in some other states, the program Colorado has now passed through Prop 118 will be funded through a 0.9% payroll tax split between employees and employers—a model that critics have argued could be a burden on both businesses and lower wage workers.
But against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, the case for paid family leave programs is stronger than ever. Women, and especially women of color, have been affected most acutely by the pandemic, due to a lack of childcare and paid leave. Since March, the only paid leave benefit available to countless workers across the country has been 12 weeks of emergency paid leave offered by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Many of them were reportedly unaware they even qualified for the benefit, in part because the majority of American workers are unfamiliar with the concept of paid leave. (In 2018, only 17% of American workers had access to paid family leave.) Other workers have been wary of taking time off during a period of high unemployment and financial insecurity.
Both presidential candidates have expressed their support for a federal paid family leave policy, though neither of them have clearly articulated what that might look like. According to Colorado Families First—one of the organizations instrumental to campaigning for paid family leave and getting it on the ballot—2.6 million Colorado residents stand to benefit from the state’s new leave program. By passing Prop 118, Colorado could serve both as a model for other states that want to pass paid family leave—and a reminder of why the benefit is worth fighting for.