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Covid-19 Stalls Paid Leave Proposals in Colorado, Tennessee

March 24, 2020, 9:15 PM

Proposals being developed to require paid leave for workers statewide in Colorado and for state government employees in Tennessee are among various measures on hold in those states due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The states are two of the more than 20 where lawmakers have temporarily suspended their legislative sessions, leaving a long list of bills pending action. When lawmakers return to work in Colorado and Tennessee, they could face tough state budget forecasts and an economic downturn that will change the calculus for requiring new employee benefits.

In Colorado, legislation to mitigate the effects of the pandemic will be “top of mind” for lawmakers when the General Assembly reconvenes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a proposed paid family leave program won’t stand a chance, said state Rep. KC Becker (D), speaker of the Colorado House. The assembly is temporarily shut down until March 30, although lawmakers said that probably will be extended.

“The pandemic has elevated the interest in passing something that supports families and workers,” like a paid family leave program, which had not yet been introduced when lawmakers hit the pause button, she said. “It heightens the interest in doing something.”

Before the session was suspended, Colorado lawmakers had been discussing a compromise plan designed to impose paid leave requirements on private-sector employers this year, while easing the cost of compliance for small businesses. That was after lawmakers failed to agree on a paid leave bill in the 2019 session, despite the Democratic Party having a majority in the House and Senate in addition to controlling the governor’s office.

Fresh Focus, Longer-Term Movement

The swelling numbers of U.S. workers who are out sick, quarantined, or forced to stay home because of social distancing orders have brought the paid leave issue to the forefront for policymakers and worker advocates.

In an immediate response to the virus, Colorado issued an emergency regulation and New York enacted legislation to require emergency paid sick time. Many states are leaning heavily on their unemployment insurance programs to address virus-related loss of work.

The broader paid leave discussions in Coloradoand similar efforts in Tennessee and elsewhere are part of a longer-term effort to expand the availability of paid family and medical leave. Lawmakers in Vermont and New Hampshire passed paid leave legislation this year but faced opposition from their governors.

If Colorado enacts a paid family and medical leave requirement, it would join eight states plus the District of Columbia that have enacted similar programs.

Tennessee, Others in Limbo

Tennessee’s legislature suspended its session after finishing a hurried budget bill last week, with tentative plans to return on June 1.

Left unfinished was Gov. Bill Lee’s (R) proposal to give paid family leave to state government employees who are new parents. A pair of placeholder bills were filed, but details of the proposal were still being worked out when the pandemic forced lawmakers to shift their attention to finishing the budget.

“When we were faced with this world health crisis, we had to step up to the plate and make difficult decisions in a short period of time,” Tennessee Sen. Jack Johnson (R), the state’s Senate majority leader, said on Monday.

“There were many good improvements in our budget and it was painful to strip them out and get us back to a bare bones budget,” he said.

The governor had proposed earlier this year a plan to offer 12 weeks of paid family leave to state government employees who became new parents, either through child birth or adoption. He initially announced the policy through an executive order, but then withdrew the order and called for legislative action instead.

Worker advocacy group A Better Balance is optimistic the Tennessee proposal could pass later this year.

“Especially given the ongoing public health crisis, it is critical that workers can take the time they need to care for themselves and loved ones without sacrificing their economic security,” said Elizabeth Gedmark, a vice president of the Nashville-based group.

A similar proposal by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) also is awaiting state lawmakers’ completion of the budget process, due by July 1. Lawmakers there have suspended session but left open the option to meet one day per week for a special session to deal with virus-related proposals.

Two paid leave proposals in Louisiana also await legislative action, but state lawmakers there have suspended session at least until March 31—a return date that could be delayed.

The Louisiana proposals would give voters a chance to approve paid family and medical leave benefits for state government employees.

—With assistance from Tripp Baltz in Denver and Jennifer Kay in Miami

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Marr in Atlanta at cmarr@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com

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