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Pitkin County joins local governments in opting out of new state insurance plan

pitkin county building.jpg
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Pitkin County commissioners met Sept. 14 at the county’s administrative building in downtown Aspen. At the meeting, the commissioners voted to opt out of the Family Medical Leave Insurance Program (FAMLI), a new statewide program that provides funding for workers who need to take time off due to a medical issue, as the county has its own program.

Pitkin County joined Aspen and Snowmass Village on Wednesday in opting out of the new Family Medical Leave Insurance Program (FAMLI). 

The program will cover a percentage of an employee's paycheck for 12 weeks during a family medical emergency, including childbirth.

FAMLI was approved by Colorado voters via Proposition 118 in November 2020, and enrollment is required by most employers starting this January.

Employers and employees will each contribute financially to the insurance program, but local governments and companies that provide equal or better private plans are not required to enroll.

Staffers from Pitkin County’s human resources department say it already has family medical leave and parental leave for its employees.

Brett Bergman, a risk manager for Pitkin County, says the state program wouldn’t be worth it for the county government.

“And we determine that the county's current benefits for the most part exceed that of what FAMLI provides,” Bergman said Wednesday at a regular meeting with the county commissioners.

Pitkin County pays a maximum of $18,000 per year for each employee who goes on leave, but the state’s plan only covers up to $13,200.

And if a Pitkin County employee gives birth, adopts or cares for a foster child, they will receive 100% of their paycheck for 12 weeks of paid leave.

If Pitkin County did enroll in FAMLI, the cost of its leave programs could double, and county staffers say the additional benefits would be marginal.

Jon Peacock, Pitkin County manager, says it would be a poor financial decision for the county to enroll.

“When we pay out the premium, that's actually dollars out the door without a guaranteed benefit back,” Peacock said. “And so, from a budgetary perspective, it's almost a net zero at the end of the day.”

Employees would also have to contribute 0.45% of their paychecks to the state program.

For someone making $50,000 a year, that would be about $225 annually.

And if Pitkin County staffers are interested in signing up for these additional benefits, they can do so on an individual basis.

And Pitkin County Commissioner Francie Jacober said that that might appeal to employees who see “trouble on the horizon.”

But even if an individual employee signs up for FAMLI and begins paying in January, benefits won’t automatically kick in.

In 2023, enrolled employees will pay into the state program, and they won't get access to paid leave until 2024.

Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury voted to opt out of the state program, but the discussion prompted her to reexamine the county’s benefits and how they can offer more-expansive coverage.

County human resources staffers acknowledged the FAMLI program does offer some benefits that the commissioners should consider.

For example, if a county employee has a serious health condition that makes them unable to work, they would only be eligible for 60% to 75% of their typical paycheck while on leave.

Bergman says it wouldn’t be that much of a strain on Pitkin County’s resources to increase that benefit.

“The county does budget at 100% of employee wages,” Bergman said. “So there's really no additional cost by providing wage replacement for those employees. It just reduces salary savings.”

In this fall’s budgetary meetings, commissioners could also vote to extend parental leave by four weeks if there are complications during pregnancy or childbirth.

And they could reduce the one-year waiting period for new employees and make paid leave accessible after just six months.

McNicholas Kury says she is particularly interested in increasing benefits for caregivers.

To me, that is the biggest gap between what FAMLI provides and what Pitkin County does not provide,” she said. “We don't really have any benefit for a caregiver to take care of an immediate family member or child or something.”

So although Pitkin County isn’t signing up, the FAMLI program is pointing out how the governing body could improve its leave benefits.

KOAA-TV in Colorado Springs reports that at least 40 government agencies have opted out of the program as of Aug. 25.

It’s unclear how the loss of funding from these large employers will affect the state’s ability to pay out these promised benefits.

And with the potential threat of new COVID-19 variants always looming, a spike in claims could stress the new system.

If they change their mind, Pitkin County, Aspen and Snowmass Village can always sign up at a later date.

But for now, they join dozens of other governments across the state saying “no” to FAMLI.

Editor's Note: This report was updated on 9-16-22 to clarify the payment percentages.

Halle is an award-winning journalist and the All Things Considered Anchor for Aspen Public Radio. She has been recognized for her work by the Public Media Journalists Association and the Colorado Broadcasters Association. Before she began working full-time with Aspen Public Radio in September 2021, Halle was a freelance broadcast journalist for both Aspen Public Radio and KDNK. Halle studied environmental analysis at Pitzer College. She was an educator at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and at the Andy Zanca Youth Empowerment program, where she taught youth radio and managed a weekly public affairs show.