This election season, paid leave is on the ballot in Colorado.
As voters cast ballots for national, state and local candidates, they will also be asked to vote on Proposition 118, to create a paid family and medical leave program. If passed, it would be the ninth state, plus D.C., to do so.
This is the first time it has been directly on a state ballot. In the past, it has always originated from a state legislature or, in the case of D.C., the city council.
If passed, workers in Colorado could expect up to 12 weeks of paid leave, with an additional four weeks for qualifying childbirth or pregnancy complications. (Voters in Colorado will also decide whether to ban abortions after 22 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions only if the person’s life is in immediate danger.)
“This is the first time voters have had a chance to weigh in on [paid family leave] and the rest of the country will be watching,” said Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of the Fairness Project, one of the groups supporting the ballot measure.
He compared the domino effect of a successful paid leave implementation in Colorado to similar campaigns his group has backed, notably Medicaid expansion.
“Americans want to be able to take care of sick loved ones, spend time with our newborns, and better protect our communities from the spread of illnesses — just like the rest of the industrialized world. In the midst of this pandemic, that’s more important than ever,” Schleifer said.
For someone like Kayla Smith, who lives in Westminster, Colo., just north of Denver, the law would have made a difference when she discovered a large tumor covering “pretty much my entire reproductive system,” after weeks of visiting doctors and getting ultrasounds and scans. Finally, after surgery, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer three years ago.
Then 27, she was a paralegal at a small law firm making about $15 an hour. She used up her paid time off in doctor visits and tests before she even had the surgery. The doctor recommended taking six weeks off work to heal.
“My initial reaction was just terror. Not because I might have cancer. Not because I might need to do chemotherapy and that sort of thing — I completely trusted modern science to be able to heal me. But my initial reaction was, ‘Am I going to be able to work? And if I’m not able to work, how am I going to be able to afford rent or to pay my bills?’”
In the end, Smith took four weeks off work.
“They let me take time off and still keep my job, but I still wasn’t getting paid. I didn’t have any savings. Fifteen dollars an hour doesn’t go very far in the Denver area,” Smith said. She resorted to using credit cards to pay her bills. “That’s still something that I’m struggling with today.”
Then there was chemotherapy.
“I couldn’t take any more time off work because I just needed to get paid. So I ended up working through my chemo. I would do a treatment on a Friday and then try to go back to work on a Monday. Sometimes I could, but sometimes I was just in too much pain or I was too sick. And those days I just had to take off without pay,” she said.
In Colorado, the new measure would include maternity, paternity, medical leave, or time off to care for a family member. The program would work like other social insurance programs with employees and employers contributing to a fund, equivalent to 0.45 percent of an employee’s wages. Employers have the option to pay up to 100 percent of the contributions.
Businesses with fewer than 10 employees would not have to contribute, but their employees still receive the time off. The average Colorado worker would contribute less than $4 a week, according to the Fairness Project.
The measure has received bipartisan support, including from advocates for small businesses, who say owners don’t want to compete with large corporations for benefits.
“They want to compete on goods and services,” said Sarah Crozier, communications director of Main Street Alliance, an advocacy group for small businesses. “To be allowed to participate in a social insurance program makes it affordable for everyone to access these kinds of supports.”
Paid leave is an entitlement economists say is imperative to correcting the current “shecession” — the current pandemic-induced recession that is hitting women harder than men. Women are more likely to be employed in sectors decimated by the pandemic and ensuing stay-at-home orders — including home health care and hospitality — while bearing the overwhelming load of domestic burdens.
As the school year started, 865,000 women were driven out of the U.S. labor force, or four times the number of men who dropped out. That was in September alone, according to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
For women of color, the effects of the economic downturn are even starker. Nearly 68 percent of Black mothers and 41 percent of Latina mothers were the primary or sole breadwinners for their families, compared with 37 percent of White mothers, according to a study by the Center for American Progress.
The U.S. economic recovery has to include more infrastructure to support working women, said Diana Boesch, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.
“We need to think about supporting women both at work and at home,” she said. “And that means providing work and family support policies like paid leave, like child care that allow these women to continue to participate in the labor force, and also give them good jobs that have high wages that allow them to maintain their work and to support their family.”