For six years, the Colorado legislature has tried — and failed — to pass paid family leave. On November 3, Colorado residents themselves will get the opportunity to vote directly for the creation of a leave program, thanks to the ballot measure Proposition 118.

If it passes, the ballot measure will create a social insurance program that will provide all state residents 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a new baby, recover from a serious illness or injury, care for a family member with a serious health condition, deal with domestic violence, or report for military service. There would be an additional four weeks for pregnancy or childbirth complications.

“This would be one of the largest social insurance programs that has been implemented in Colorado.”

The program, which would be the ninth state paid family leave law enacted in the country, wouldn’t be implemented until 2023, when the state will begin collecting premiums, and benefits won’t be paid out until 2024. About 2.6 million workers in the state would become eligible for benefits.

“This would be one of the largest social insurance programs that has been implemented in Colorado,” said Ashley Panelli, a paid leave organizer with 9to5 Colorado.

If, as polls predict, the proposition passes, Colorado would become the first state to enact paid family leave through the ballot, rather than through legislation, as has been the case for all other states and Washington, D.C. “It would really show the public support for programs like this,” Panelli said.

The potential success of the first-ever ballot measure guaranteeing paid family leave is thanks to a number of factors that affected the campaign, such as life under a pandemic, which put the need for time off to care for sick loved ones in stark relief, and a direct appeal to voters that is less susceptible than the legislature is to industry lobbying.

The road to putting the measure before voters was a long one. With Democrats in control of both chambers of the Colorado legislature and the governor’s office, advocates had thought 2020 would be the year it would finally happen. Gov. Jared Polis, in fact, was an original co-sponsor of a bill in Congress to create a national paid family leave program. Then Polis insisted that, instead of using the public social insurance framework implemented in the vast majority of other countries and all other U.S. states, the legislature adopt a private insurance model.

All of the models put forward by private insurers, however, failed to get a “triple A rating: affordable, adequate, and accessible,” Panelli said. Insurers “felt that they really couldn’t meet those demands and simultaneously make a profit that was worthwhile.”

As the coronavirus pandemic hit, the legislature dropped the paid family leave bill, instead passing a measure to permanently extend paid sick leave to all state residents. Panelli saw the imprint of advocates’ long fight for family leave that covers all workers on that bill: Colorado’s is one of the most comprehensive paid sick leave laws among the 11 other states that has passed one because it eventually covers all employees. While businesses with 15 or fewer workers are currently exempt, they will also face the requirement in 2022.

Advocates had hoped that the legislature would also pass paid family legislation on its own, sparing them the costs of a ballot campaign. But the ballot measure was their insurance against lawmakers’ inaction, filed during the spring legislative battle. It wasn’t easy to get the required number of signatures for it to appear before voters this November in the middle of a pandemic: Colorado Families First resorted to putting petitions out on tables in grocery store parking lots and offering people individually wrapped pens to sign, all while keeping appropriate distance. “In the end I’m not sad that the people get to have a say on this, despite all the work required,” said Wendy Howell, deputy director of the Colorado Working Families Party, which was part of the coalition. “The people should have more of a say on this.”

Success in Colorado could prompt advocates in other states where legislatures have failed to pass paid family leave to consider the same tactic. “It would just make sense if you have those dynamics where you’re struggling with your legislature but it’s hugely popular,” Howell said.

For the Colorado advocates who have fought so long for it, the importance is incredibly personal. Panelli has had thousands of conversations with state residents who needed paid leave and couldn’t take it, and she said the most common phrase people use to describe what paid leave would have meant to them is “life-changing”: “This would absolutely alter the course of people’s lives if they were given the opportunity to rest and recover without having to worry about their next paycheck.”

Pushed During a Pandemic

Campaigning for a ballot measure amid a pandemic has been challenging. Advocates have stuck to virtual outreach, from phone and text banking to virtual webinars and virtual rallies. They’ve run TV ads and asked people to reach out to their own networks. Debra Brown, executive director of Good Business Colorado, which represents small business owners, did an eight-day tour going to open businesses and talking with the owners.

It seems to be working. A Survey USA poll conducted in early October found that 57 percent of voters support Proposition 118, compared to 21 percent who oppose it. Even 38 percent of Republicans are in favor, versus 37 percent against. “Most voters understand this is a no-brainer, that this is a huge gap that needs to be addressed,” Panelli said.

Every Democrat in the state legislature except one has endorsed the measure, as have all of the Democrats in Colorado’s congressional delegation. The governor has said he’ll remain neutral.

A number of small business owners support it as well, even in the middle of a life-threatening pandemic. “Now is a moment where people are really seeing the cracks in the system and seeing how vulnerable our businesses and our communities are to shocks to the system like Covid,” Brown said. “There’s a greater need for it than ever before.” Over 160 state businesses have endorsed the ballot measure.

“The terrain of the struggle from a place where lobbyists have outsized power to a place where the public has all the power.”

Brown said some of her members who had been indifferent to the paid leave fight became more involved after the pandemic started. “Now they understand just how vulnerable they and their employees are,” she said. “Everybody acknowledges that paid family and medical leave is something that we all need access to.”

Some object to the idea of increasing costs for businesses at a time like this, but the premiums won’t begin until 2023. Once they begin, employers and employees would evenly split the premiums, and businesses with fewer than 10 employees won’t have to pay anything. The opposition has been more muted than supporters had anticipated. In 2019, a paid family leave bill was the most lobbied piece of legislation in the legislative session, most of it from businesses and chambers of commerce who opposed it.

The ballot measure fight, however, has not been a high-dollar campaign. Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute and a critic of paid family leave, wrote an op-ed lamenting that “Colorado’s ‘business community’ has gone AWOL” on the issue. Having voters weigh in directly has shifted “the terrain of the struggle from a place where lobbyists have outsized power to a place where the public has all the power,” Howell said.

That may lead to its eventual success. “Fundamentally, it comes down to the outsized role that corporate voices play in the closed circle of the capitol dome,” Howell said. “They don’t have the same influence on the public.”

Still, advocates plan to keep campaigning for the measure. “We don’t want to get too comfortable,” Panelli said. “We’re really trying to push until the very last second to cross the finish line.”

Update: October 26, 2020
This story has been updated to include the role of the wider Colorado Families First coalition in collecting signatures to put paid family leave on the ballot and that the Working Families Party was one organization in the coalition.