Origianlly printed April, 12, 2014
By Aldo Svaldi
The Denver Post
Paid worker leave dominated the conversation Friday at The Denver Forum on Working Families, the first in a series of gatherings to promote labor-market reforms supported by the Obama administration.
“You are at the beginning of an important national conversation,” said Katherine Archuleta, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. “Denver is leading the way as it usually does.”
The White House, the Department of Labor and the Center for American Progress are organizing the regional gatherings that will move from Denver to Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Boston before culminating in a national summit on June 23 in Washington, D.C.
Topics discussed Friday included raising the minimum wage, pay parity for women and reducing long-term unemployment. But the dominant theme is one that will heat up next week in Colorado — paid leave for workers.
State Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, told the gathering of about 100 people that he would introduce a bill Monday to create an insurance program in Colorado that would cover paid worker leave.
“It’s about the ability to care for yourself and your family,” Ulibarri said.
Although the Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers to provide time off for workers dealing with personal and family medical situations, that leave is typically unpaid.
Only 12 percent of workers have paid family leave, forcing many into the predicament of having to choose between caring for loved ones or meeting basic expenses, said Linda Meric, national director of 9to5, a group focused on issues impacting low-wage working women.
“Our policies have not kept up with changes in the workplace,” she said. “A majority of working people can’t take the time they need.”
Colorado Fiscal Institute economist Chris Stiffler provided a glimpse into the mechanics of what leave insurance might look like in Colorado.
He estimated 2.2 million workers in the state would be eligible, with the average weekly wage replaced being $644 and a program cost of $414.1 million to help 75,000 families a year.
Backers are going to start out by asking for up to 12 weeks of covered leave in Colorado, although political compromises and fiscal realities in California and New Jersey resulted in six weeks of coverage.
They also want to provide replacement salaries on a sliding scale rather than the fixed percentage used elsewhere. A worker making under $8,400 a year would receive 98 percent of pay, whereas someone making more than $22,400 a year would only get 66 percent of pay.
About two-thirds of 600 Colorado voters surveyed supported the idea of leave insurance, said David Winkler, research director of Project New America.
About 73 percent surveyed considered the estimated premium of 0.5 percent of salary reasonable, he said. That said, backers know it may take several tries to get something passed.
“It will take a couple of years to get people on board,” Stiffler said.