Politics

How Colorado Got Even Libertarians to Support Paid Family Leave

Inside a yearslong persuasion campaign.

A child peeks out from between his parent's legs as the parent casts a ballot in a voting booth in a wood-paneled room
Election Day in Granby, Colorado. Jason Connolly/AFP via Getty Images

The emails started coming in just days after Faith Winter’s big win on Nov. 3. The Colorado state senator had led the charge for a state-run paid family and medical leave insurance program—which voters approved by 15 points—and now lawmakers from Arizona to Georgia wanted to know how they might do the same thing.

Support for Proposition 118, fueled in part by a heightened awareness of the need for paid leave during a global health crisis, bridged party and geographic lines. It was a dramatic turnaround after years of intransigence in Denver’s gold-domed state Capitol.

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“People who voted for Trump in very Republican and very rural counties also voted for paid family leave,” said Winter, a former state representative who helped flip the state Senate blue in 2018. “This really shows part of our story. We have a very divided country right now and we are looking for issues that can heal us. Paid family leave can be one of those issues.”

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Now, Winter will share her strategies in December training sessions with legislators looking to introduce similar bills when their statehouses reconvene next year. One of them is: Don’t be afraid of putting forth a bill that may not pass.

“We ran this for several years with a divided legislature, even though we knew the likelihood of passing it at the time was small—I always called it ‘losing forward.’ Each time we ran it, we got more coalitions to support it and we got better at messaging,” recalled Winter. Over six years, six such bills died in the General Assembly. But ultimately, that honed messaging prevailed at the ballot box, backed by an alliance of low-wage workers, unions, people of color, faith leaders, and small-business owners. “The overall power dynamic inside the legislature was the lobbyists have more power, but outside the building, voters have more power,” she said. “I knew from actual on-the-ground conversations that this was going to be a very popular initiative.”

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After an attempt at negotiating a compromise with business leaders failed in April, the coalition donned masks and collected more than 200,000 signatures to place Proposition 118 on the ballot. In a frenzied three-month persuasion campaign, organizers drove hundreds of miles, handed out scores of yard signs, and phoned and texted more than 100,000 voters. Cold calls on dozens of main streets yielded the endorsements of more than 200 small firms.

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The protracted paid-leave debate in the Centennial State underscores long-standing inequities in the nation’s employee benefit laws. The United States is one of the few developed nations in the world that does not guarantee workers paid leave to care for newborn or adopted infants, or take care of themselves or their loved ones if they fall ill. Federal law mandates only 12 weeks of unpaid leave, which many workers can’t afford to take. They are then often forced to choose between taking time off to care for an ill loved one or paying the rent.

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Proposition 118 will offer benefits to the 2.6 million Coloradans proponents say are currently unable to access paid family leave. The statute will allow residents to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave—with an additional four weeks for pregnancy or childbirth complications—annually starting in 2024.

The program will be funded by premiums split between employers and employees, who must pay into the statewide pool starting Jan. 1, 2023. Costs will vary according to salary—workers making $26,000 a year and their employers will each pay $117 annually, with those earning $104,000, and their employers, paying $468.

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The premiums are projected to raise $1.2 billion in the 2023–24 budget year, allowing beneficiaries to draw up to $1,100 per week, depending on their wages. Employees are eligible after they’ve earned $2,500. If they’ve worked at their company for 180 days, their job is protected when they take paid time off. Firms with fewer than 10 people won’t be required to pay premiums, although their employees can choose to pay into the program, as can sole proprietors and gig workers. Local governments and school districts can opt out. Employers that offer comparable or more generous paid-leave insurance programs can keep them instead.

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The issue gained momentum in Colorado in 2014, after a record number of women were elected to the General Assembly and competition for workers intensified across industries. Similar dynamics led lawmakers in eight other states, including Oregon, Washington, and Connecticut, to approve paid family leave laws. California passed the first such statute in 2002.

The success of these efforts has created a paradigm shift in how politicians and businesses view the need for such programs. President Donald Trump called for a paid leave program for new parents. And President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign site says he will support passing legislation that will provide 12 weeks of paid leave for all workers. Congress passed a bill in 2019 granting federal employees 12 weeks of paid family leave, which went into effect Oct. 1.

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In Colorado, a growing electorate that includes well-educated younger voters and liberal ski town residents propelled Proposition 118’s success. Economic distress wrought by the coronavirus also played in the measure’s favor. It won in conservative Weld County, one of the nation’s largest agricultural regions, by 569 votes, and in El Paso County, home to the evangelical Christian ministry Focus on the Family, by 3 points. Trump won by about 11 points in El Paso and 18 points in Weld.

The initiative is among progressive measures that scored victories even in states that Biden lost, such as Florida’s $15 minimum wage referendum and measures that legalized recreational marijuana in Montana and South Dakota.

As with all persuasion campaigns, Proposition 118’s messaging was tailored to different constituencies. In one ad for Proposition 118, an auto mechanic with three employees talked about how it would be free for his business. In another, brewery owners said the insurance program would cost them less than a pint of beer a week. A third featured a mother whose requests for days off to help her son through cancer treatment were denied—even as she flew to Georgia—causing her to worry she could lose her job.

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The coalition also liked to cite a University of Minnesota report that found paid leave programs decreased nursing home placements, reduced use of federal assistance, improved mental and physical health for children, and ensured higher wages for workers because they could come back to the same job when they completed their leave.

“We marshaled that research and shared it with voters,” said Jared Make, vice president for A Better Balance, a nonprofit that advocates for paid leave. “That was very important, in particular when we were seeing misinformation from others opposing the initiative.”

About 50 business groups opposed Proposition 118, including those representing restaurants, realtors, bankers, municipalities, and farmers. “Not Now Colorado” cast its campaign as a “David and Goliath” effort and collected about $785,287 through Nov. 2, about 11 times less than the $8.3 million proponents raised. The bulk of the pro-118 donations came from the Sixteen Thirty Fund and the North Fund, national progressive nonprofits that aren’t required to disclose their donors.

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Many small businesses support the program, saying it will not only help them afford paid family leave benefits that are more generous than short-term disability plans, but also compete with larger companies for workers. Others disagree, saying a one-size-fits-all program does not give them the flexibility they need to thrive, particularly as they try to recover economically from the pandemic.

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About three of four small firms provide some type of paid time off, according to the National Federation of Independent Business’ Colorado affiliate, which opposed Proposition 118. Its director, Tony Gagliardi, said he’s concerned the new law will deter such companies from adding workers to stay under the threshold at which they don’t need to pay premiums. “It raises the question of whether they really want that tenth, or that eleventh, employee.”

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How to structure a paid leave program so it doesn’t harm businesses’ ability to grow was one of the sticking points that repeatedly stalled paid leave legislation in the General Assembly. To break the impasse, the issue’s champions passed a bill in 2019 that created a bipartisan task force charged with designing a policy based on research from states and other countries with paid leave benefits.

The task force also commissioned an actuarial study that said Colorado’s program would remain solvent. And Proposition 118 proponents cited evidence from states that already administer such programs that they pay for themselves.

Opponents disagree, pointing to a report by the Common Sense Institute, a business-backed organization, which predicted more residents may take advantage of the program than its supporters estimated, causing it to run out of money.

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“The history of our state running large programs like this—such as the state’s pension program, which today is $30 billion underfunded—causes us concern,” said Kelly Brough, president and chief executive officer of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. “The policy itself is not well drafted and there is a lot of confusion—it significantly expands the definition of family.”

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Under Proposition 118, that category now includes “any individual with whom the employee has a significant personal bond that is like a family relationship.” This provision drew praise in more than 1,000 comments submitted to the task force. Veteran grassroots organizers like Debra Brown mined these missives for supporters whose voices could help grow their paid leave network.

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Shortly before Election Day, Brown, executive director of the nonprofit Good Business Colorado, drove past hayfields and cattle feed lots on Colorado’s eastern plains, her latest mission in a whirlwind, weekslong tour crisscrossing the state to persuade small firms to endorse the measure.

When a retail shop owner in Greeley expressed misgivings about another employer mandate that she could ill afford in an economic downturn, Brown asked if she would like to see what her premiums might add up to. She agreed.

The shop manager, who just had a baby, reversed her opposition to Proposition 118 after Brown informed her that only her employees would pay into the program. She told Brown she could have used it herself.

Brown also found the pandemic expanded the appeal of such a program in far-flung corners of Colorado where residents prize personal freedom. “COVID gave some people new life experiences that made them view the benefit of public safety net programs in a different way because they found themselves in a situation beyond the control of their rugged individualism,” said Brown.

“I talked to a libertarian who found himself unemployed for the first time in his life. And suddenly he had a new perspective on unemployment insurance.”

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