Some local business leaders are opposed to a Colorado Senate bill that would create a $1 billion insurance-type program for paid leave.

The Family Medical Leave Insurance Program act — SB 19188 — was introduced March 7 and approved by the Business, Labor & Technology Committee on March 13. If passed, the bill will compensate employees for time off related to family emergencies for up to 16 weeks. The reasons for leave can range from maternity and paternity leave, caring for a sick family member, personal health issues and needs stemming from a family member's active military service.

But while the bill appears to have good intentions, said Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Diane Schwenke, she opposes it. For her, one problem is the bill adds premiums for bigger businesses to pay, while government entities and businesses with fewer than 10 employees pay into the program at a reduced rate. The employees and employers will both pay into the program.

"Businesses with over 10 employees will be picking up for more than just themselves," she said.

She also feels it discourages businesses already providing paid leave for employees.

"Our sense is you should be incentivizing businesses that have family and company leave. That will start to go away because businesses can't handle both."

Schwenke testified against the bill remotely along with Nina Anderson, franchise owner for Express Employment Professionals Grand Junction and Montrose.

Anderson, who has fewer than eight employees between Grand Junction and Montrose, said her issues are less about money and more about the struggles to replace someone. She said a temporary worker would take roughly six weeks to train, leaving them at most 10 more weeks to work comfortably.

"To me, administratively, it's really unreasonable for me to have someone work for me for 17 weeks to apply and be awarded 16 weeks off and I can't replace them," Anderson said.

She also added that the discount she'll get for having fewer than 10 employees will discourage her from growing should she have the need. She also feels it is underfunded.

"It's a job killer the way it's currently written. I would like to see them tweak it a bit," she said.

If the bill is passed, Colorado would join just a handful of states with similar legislation. However, Schwenke said this could deter some businesses from relocating to the state.

"There are real concerns for our competitiveness for future businesses. We will be in the minority of states who have enacted this,"

The Mesa County Commissioners also sent a letter opposing the bill, stating it is "redundant and costly to both the employer and the employee." They also stated it will hurt small businesses.

Bill proponents say Americans lose millions of dollars each year in wages due to unpaid leave. This bill would allow workers to take some time off when necessary to care for their family or themselves.

"We think it's a thoughtful solution to a problem that more and more people recognize as harmful to families and our economy, the lack of access to paid leave," Kathy White, deputy director of the Colorado Fiscal Institute during testimony to the Senate Business, Labor & Technology Committee on March 13. "Women who have access to paid leave are more likely to be back at work more quickly than women who don't, and are 54 percent more likely to return to their pre-birth employer."

The bill is slated to go to a second committee, but no dates are currently set.

Daily Sentinel reporter Charles Ashby contributed to this report.

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