Colorado Senate President Steve Fenberg became a dad five days before the 2020 legislative session. But with no formal family leave policy in place at the Legislature, he decided not to take time off.
“(I) was like a zombie for probably the first half of session,” Fenberg says.
His experience was not unique; balancing legislative work and caregiving was a concern for several Colorado lawmakers. Some, like House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, planned their families’ growth around the legislative calendar; others requested leave as absence for long-term illness. Joining forces, Fenberg and Esgar, along with Sen. Brittany Pettersen and Rep. Kerry Tipper, were prime sponsors of a bipartisan bill enacted in May giving lawmakers paid parental leave, a first for U.S. legislatures.
We need to make sure that we don’t have barriers, either intentionally or unintentionally, that keep people from being able to run for office. —Colorado Senate President Steve Fenberg
“Being inclusive here has a direct impact on our democracy and who represents us,” Fenberg told the Colorado Sun. “I think we need to make sure that we don’t have barriers, either intentionally or unintentionally, that keep people from being able to run for office.”
Colorado’s new law amends a statute on legislative compensation. Previously, members would not be compensated for absences longer than two-thirds of a session unless they were absent for a long-term illness and had received approval from chamber leadership. The new law gives members up to 12 weeks of compensation for parental leave and an additional four weeks for serious health conditions related to pregnancy and childbirth.
The law also allows for a member to receive compensation while absent from session due to long-term illness or additional parental leave beyond the permitted period with approval from the Senate president or the House speaker.
Striking a Balance
Other legislative bodies have attempted to strike a balance between legislative, personal and professional responsibilities. Examples include chamber rules providing for excused absences (the Massachusetts Senate has a rule specifically addressing parental leave); providing sick leave; allowing children on the floor; and providing nursing rooms in capitol buildings. Some legislatures may have informal policies and practices for absences and accommodations. Others have statutes protecting a member’s non-legislative job while serving.
The Colorado legislators’ experience was common. While NCSL categorizes only 10 states as full-time legislatures, many lawmakers serving in states with hybrid or part-time legislatures have reported that the time they dedicate to legislative work is greater than expected.
There is anecdotal evidence that the “great resignation” that hit the U.S. labor market over the last year also affects state legislatures. While some blame political polarization and retirements, others attribute lawmaker resignations to the increased time expectations and limited pay for legislative service. Anecdotally, some legislators have shared with NCSL that limited resources and large time commitments pose a challenge to legislative service.
Laws, rules and policies addressing absences for legislators have the potential to benefit all lawmakers who need to balance legislative service with family caregiving. However, as higher rates of women and younger people enter legislative service, family leave for legislators becomes especially relevant. In the U.S., women take on a disproportionate amount of household responsibilities, including caretaking. Policies enabling legislators to balance family caretaking with legislative responsibilities might make holding office more sustainable for more people.
“When you have a legislature that is citizen-led, there are people who live outside of this building. We’re not career politicians here,” Esgar told the Colorado Sun. “If someone gets pregnant or if their spouse gets pregnant, they deserve the ability to have time off with their families after their child is born, just like anyone else.”
Similarly, Sen. Jim Smallwood, who originally planned to vote no on the paid leave law but ultimately supported it, says the state should strive to be an employer of choice, including for lawmakers. “Sometimes being good fiduciaries of taxpayer money means attracting the best and brightest.”
Josalyn Williams is a policy associate in NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening.