Colorado Workers: We Want and Need Paid Leave for All

Colorado workers refuse to choose between their loved ones and a paycheck. A decade-long effort among grassroots organizers to push the Colorado legislature to create a paid leave program culminated in November when over 1.7 million Coloradans voted to approve Proposition 118, which creates a state-run paid family and medical leave program (PFML). The success of the Colorado ballot initiative across party lines demonstrates that a progressive and equitable social insurance program is what the public decidedly wants and needs.

The program will provide 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, with an additional 4 weeks for qualifying pregnancy or childbirth complications. Colorado is funding it through payroll premiums collected equally from employers and employees. The state will begin collecting premiums in 2023; employees can begin using the program in 2024. While opponents objected to funding the program through premiums, the overwhelming voter support shows that people are willing to make a small contribution to create a solvent and equitable program.

Colorado’s win was possible thanks to the work of grassroots organizers and advocates who were willing to build on lessons learned from the nine states and D.C. that already have paid leave programs.

Currently, the top 10 percent of earners in Colorado are seven times more likely to have access to paid leave than the lowest-paid workers. Income should not be the deciding factor between caring for one’s family and having a livelihood. A statewide policy ensures that a majority of workers, regardless of how much money they make, are able to access paid leave. The amount employees receive during their leave will be based upon their average weekly wage. The lower your wage, the more of it is replaced. Workers with the lowest wages will receive 90 percent of their typical paycheck; replacement will taper down to as low as 37 percent for workers with higher wages. While this is not as progressive as programs like Oregon’s, where the lowest earning workers will receive their full paycheck while on leave, this wage replacement makes the program more accessible for workers earning low wages who otherwise might not be able to take leave. 

Additionally, the program includes a provision on job protection, so that workers can take leave without fear of job loss or retaliation, after 180 days of employment. Many employees eligible for leave do not take it out of fear of retaliation. A paid leave policy without job protections worsens income, race, and gender disparities. Colorado’s policy includes language against insidious forms of retaliation like “denial, threat, discharge, suspension, demotion, reduction of hours.”

An approach that protects workers with low wages isn’t just one of economic justice; paid family leave is also a matter of racial justice. In the pandemic, 800,000 women have been forced to leave the workforce  due to overrepresentation in low-paying jobs hit hardest by the pandemic, as well as caregiving responsibilities. Mothers in the lowest economic bracket are primary or sole breadwinners at twice the rate of higher-paid mothers, and Black and Latinx mothers are breadwinners at twice the rate as white mothers. This means that women of color, who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, also have unequal access to paid leave. Without paid leave, women of color are more likely to lose their income, and their families are more likely to face financial insecurity. 

Any paid-leave policy designed to meet the needs of workers must also expand its definition of family. Colorado has taken cues from other state PFML programs to allow for “personal bonds” to count as family, “regardless of biological or legal relationship.” This is especially significant as multi-generational poverty often involves much larger communities of care than a traditional nuclear family. Additionally, what counts as “necessary” leave includes mental health and seeking care as a result of family violence or sexual assault. 

It shouldn’t have to take a pandemic, years of legislative struggle, and a ballot initiative to secure the future safety and health of workers. Colorado saw a way forward through the success of paid leave in other states and seized an opportunity to make change where legislation would not. The overwhelming support across party lines in Colorado for Prop 118 shows that paid leave is what working individuals and families want and need. Everyone should receive proper time to care, heal, and bond. The success in Colorado demonstrates that paid leave is the trend forward. However, workers nationwide should have access to comprehensive, universal, and inclusive paid family and medical leave regardless of where they work or live. To accomplish that, we need paid leave for all, and Congress can make that happen by passing the FAMILY Act now.