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Colorado Makes History With Paid Family And Medical Leave On Ballot

Only one state in the country is voting directly on paid leave. Here’s why Colorado could change the nation.

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On November 3rd, Colorado voters could make history. For the first time ever, the citizens and voters of the state will have a chance to directly vote on whether or not they want a paid family and medical leave program provided by the government through a ballot amendment. Though it wouldn’t be the first state-run paid family and medical leave program, it is absolutely one of the most progressive, with twelve weeks of leave plus an additional four weeks of maternity leave, all paid by employers for every worker in the state. It’s the first step in a series of steps to pass initiatives state by state across the country for similar legislation for an issue that has languished in D.C. and across the country.

The vote has been a long time coming. Activists on the ground in Colorado worked on a plan to ensure that the 2.6 million Coloradans who don’t have access to paid medical and family leave could vote on just the measure tomorrow. The Fairness Project, a non-profit that fights for economic and social equality throughout the country by utilizing ballot measures to pass major legislation, has been fighting alongside those activists and hopes for a big victory on November 3rd.  Tomorrow, voters will likely decide on whether or not they want to pass one of the most progressive leave programs in the country. And there’s a good chance it might pass. 

Fatherly spoke to Jonathan Schleifer, Executive Director at the Fairness Project, about why ballot amendments are the most direct version of democracy there is, why this paid leave vote could change American politics for good, and how much more can be accomplished when voters skip the lobbyists and the politicians and go directly to the polls.

What’s going on in Colorado and why does it matter?

Colorado has the chance to become a model for the rest of the country, in a moment when it really matters. COVID has made it incredibly clear just how important being able to take time off for your own illness, for your family member’s illnesses, in order to be able to keep your job and keep your income. Colorado is no small state. In passing this initiative, we could bring paid family medical leave to 2.6 million Coloradans.

That’s incredibly powerful for those millions of people. But also, depending on the results of the November election, this could bring us closer than ever to getting a national paid family leave policy. Parents have a chance to provide a pathway to success and create momentum towards that national program. If leadership in Washington stays the way that it is, there isn’t going to be a national program. If we win on November 3rd, The Fairness Project will continue to go state by state by state passing these policies. 

What does the policy that Colorado voters are voting on entail, exactly?

They’d get 12 weeks of paid leave, plus four additional weeks for childbirth and pregnancy complications. It’s a low-cost insurance program that would be shared between employee and employer contributions. Smaller businesses that have less than 10 employees will pay nothing, but their employees still receive the benefit

Workers will be eligible for leave after earning $2,500 in wages. And their jobs are protected [to take that leave] after 180 days of employment. The employee will pay about .4 to 5-percent of the employee’s wage. Employers can choose to pay 100% of that, but basically, the average Colorado worker will contribute less than $4 a week for this benefit. Employers who already have other benefits may keep their private plans if they meet the requirements — so we’re not disrupting current currently negotiated agreements. Low-income workers will receive 90-percent of their pay during the time off, and there is a maximum weekly benefit. 

When would this plan begin, if it does pass?

2023, so it’s not going to be an economic shock to the system. What’s remarkable, is that over and over again, the legislature in Colorado was negotiating a number of different options for paid family and medical leave. And they’ve never got as good, and as progressive, a program as the one that voters are voting on.

One of the benefits of ballot initiatives is that, when it’s left in the hands of politicians, what often happens is it’s a race to the bottom.  How do you find the public policy that satisfies the most number of elected officials, but also satisfies all their special interest groups? What we found is that by design, when you put a policy in front of voters, they want what’s best for themselves, and their communities. Not, what’s best for politicians, or what’s best for special interests.

You mentioned a maximum payout.

It’s $1100 a month. Eighty percent of workers in the US do not have access to paid family and medical leave. It’s the same ratio in Colorado. I personally know the benefit of paid leave and I experienced it six years ago when our first son was born. 

He was born 10 weeks early in a city we didn’t live in. We were living in Brooklyn at the time, and we happened to go to DC for our baby shower. The day after the shower, we had to rush to a DC hospital, and my son was born. He had to spend the next 10 weeks of his early life in NICU, at three pounds and three ounces. It was the scariest time of our lives.

My wife’s employer basically said, “take as much time as you need. No questions asked.” But my employer insisted that I go back to work. I had to commute back to New York during the week, leaving my wife and son in D.C. That’s when I learned just how important paid family medical leave was.

Why are ballot amendments so effective in passing things like paid leave, or Medicaid expansion, which your organization has worked on?

These are issues that we find, over and over again in blue, purple, and red states, that voters support. When you pull people out of their partisan corners, when you take the R or the D, off a policy, people are generally in agreement about what they want for themselves, for their community, and for families. Medicaid expansion is a great example. When you separate the issue from the debate around Obamacare, and you just ask people, “Do you want people who earn less than $17,000 a year to have health care?” [They tend to say]: yeah, that’s my nephew. That’s my neighbor. 

We keep finding over and again that Americans are just much more generous than our politics suggest. It looks like there’s no room for agreement — but that’s actually not the reality when it comes to these fundamental questions about wages and health, and leave. The basic questions about how people want themselves and workers to be treated have, actually, a lot of agreement. And we just have to take it out of politics by going to the purest form of politics, which is direct democracy.

Do you think the initiative will pass in Colorado? 

I feel optimistic because we’ve seen over and again that when you give voters an opportunity to vote on these common-sense issues, 94-percent of the time, they come out and voted yes. So paid family medical leave, wages, health care… They’re common-sense issues. Voters want to see it expanded in their communities. I think that’s what we’re going to see in two weeks.

It seems like you have two paths forward. If it passes, you will go state by state by state to get this thing moving.

Yes. But there are a lot of states that don’t have a valid process for ballot amendments. But going state by state, as we do, is very much about immediacy and urgency. We cannot wait for a federal policy. It’s unfair to ask poor and working people to wait for our politics to come around. 

The state by state strategy is very much about the urgency of the moment and giving people the things they need when they need it. So ideally, yes, after November 3, Congress or the White House will advance a national paid family leave program.

But we’ve seen lots of great ideas go to Washington to die. I used to be a lobbyist for veterans and teachers. I saw how terrible some of those conversations can be — just cynical. We should just be providing for people what they need to thrive. So, if we have the right circumstances in DC, a national program would be phenomenal. In two weeks, if we see that there’s a viable path, we will consider going state by state, just like we did for Medicaid expansion.

Is there a benefit to going state by state to try to pass paid leave?

It’s a neat thing. We not only change the lives of millions of people as we do it, but we also help change the political calculus by demonstrating that these policies are popular even in purple and red states, just as we’ve done for Medicaid expansion. And we create more momentum because what we find is that as employers in one state provide this program, employers in another state will be asked why they’re not providing it. It creates a groundswell of pressure within businesses, as well as within politics, towards this policy. I think winning in Colorado will be catalytic, either towards the national program or towards a longer-term strategy that’ll enable us to get ultimately to the national policy.

Right. It’s funny what you said about Washington is a place where good ideas go to die. 

The last negotiations I was a part of as a lobbyist were with Republican Senate staff. I was there asking for money for mental health programming for widows and orphans of soldiers. A staffer told me, “Oh, yeah, my boss is gonna vote with you on those two things, but we’re gonna have to cut the new G.I. Bill to pay for it.” 

The new G.I. Bill is a scholarship program that has allowed millions of veterans and their families to go to school. He was basically saying, “you need to choose between the mental health of widows and orphans or education.” And I said to him, “why can’t they have both?” And his response was, “Well, those are the rules you have to play by.” That was one of the last meetings I had. I remember, like walking out and thinking, I’m just done playing those ridiculous rules, because they’re capricious, and they’re partisan, and they’re arbitrary. The beauty of this is that at the end of the day, we don’t have to negotiate between healthcare and education or between education and widows and orphans. We can just go to voters and be like, does this make sense for you in your community?

I read something last week that said that the true unemployment rate for women right now is probably about 30-percent. Hundreds of millions of American moms, in particular, have had to drop out of the workforce since March.

Yeah. COVID forced a 1960s economics model on a lot of things. Because of unequal pay based on gender, families are forced to make really difficult decisions about who is the one who’s going to stay home. I’ve got two kids. Who’s gonna stay home and homeschool the kids? There’s no childcare, and because of inequality in wages, it’s not an irrational decision to say that the woman should stay home. But that’s also fucking immoral. The fact that women are leaving the workforce at four times the rate of men is a function of a series of policies and decisions made in a government- and corporate-world that are forced to be there. On November 3rd, we’ll have the opportunity, at least in Colorado, to change some of those policies.