New Colorado law entitles workers six days of paid sick leave

The coronavirus pandemic motivated Colorado Democrats to pass a bill to allow sick workers to stay home for about six workdays without losing wages, and on Tuesday morning Gov. Jared Polis signed that bill into law.

“We want sick people to stay home — to be able to stay home,” Polis said, just before signing SB-205 in a small ceremony at Denver’s History Colorado Center.

Said state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, D-Thornton, a sponsor of SB-205 and a working physician, “So often when a kid comes to the clinic and is sick with a cold or the flu or, yes, even coronavirus, we say go home, drink plenty of fluids, take some Tylenol, and don’t go anywhere. … And for so many parents I’ve talked to in the 10 years I’ve been a doctor, that’s not a choice.”

Colorado Democrats have been trying for six years to create a statewide paid family and medical leave program, arguing at various points for a universal benefit of 12 or more weeks of paid time off for someone tending to a personal emergency, or helping a family member through one. The bill signed into law Tuesday is significantly less ambitious.

However, backers of a comprehensive program are collecting signatures to place their proposal, Initiative 283, on the November ballot. It would allow up to 16 weeks of paid leave for some employees if it makes the ballot and is approved by voters.

But SB-205, its sponsors have said, is a start.

Effective Jan. 1, the new law will require every Colorado employer to offer up to 48 hours of paid sick leave to their workers — that’s six eight-hour days off — who will accrue this benefit at a rate of one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours on the job. Someone who works 40 hours per week will earn the full 48 hours after 36 weeks. Workers will be able to begin taking paid leave as it’s accrued, meaning someone who works eight-hour days will have to put in six 40-hour weeks before being allowed to take one paid sick day.

The benefit will be available to both full- and part-time workers, though it will take members of the latter group longer to accrue hours.

The law states that workers can use this benefit to care for their own mental or physical health or that of a family member. It provides paid leave for people who’ve been personally victimized by sexual assault or harassment, or domestic abuse, or who have a family member in such a circumstance. Another provision, inspired by the pandemic, states that a worker with a child can take paid leave if a public health emergency has necessitated the closure of schools or child care centers.

Businesses with 16 or fewer employees are exempt from this mandate for the first year but must meet the requirement starting on Jan. 1, 2022.

The benefits spelled out in the bill are currently unavailable to a majority of Colorado workers — especially low-income, hourly workers — forcing difficult choices for many as coronavirus has spread through the state.

“We know that if we had universal access to paid sick leave for all workers before this virus, we know more people would’ve stayed home,” said Senate Majority Leader and SB-205 sponsor Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder. “We know that people wouldn’t have had to choose between going to work sick or staying home.”

The business community wasn’t thrilled with SB-205, although the business lobby got a number of amendments added, including limiting the definition of a family member and the one-year delay for the smallest businesses.

In a recent email blast to members, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce CEO Kelly Brough wrote of SB-205, “The vast majority of our members provide paid leave to employees and understand the importance of employees staying home when they are sick, so our primary concern with this bill was to ensure that employers are given the flexibility to administer these benefits in a way that’s best for their workplaces.

“While the amendments we were able to get adopted help, we know some employers will still face challenges aligning with the new standard,” Brough said.

Absent from Tuesday’s bill signing event were state Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, and state Rep. Matt Gray, D-Broomfield, who were the lead sponsors of a paid family leave bill scuttled in the spring. They have said they don’t want the public to confuse SB-205 with Initiative 283, and so they’ve deliberately kept their distance.

Winter told The Denver Post by text message that signature collection is going well and that she expects the campaign will hand its signed petitions to the Secretary of State’s Office by the end of July. They need 124,632 valid signatures to make the ballot, and they believe they’ll have more than enough.

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