Measure would extend work program

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State lawmakers have voted to renew a rarely used program that gives struggling businesses an alternative to laying off employees.

Senate Bill 157, which has passed both chambers of the Democratic-controlled General Assembly on party-line votes, would extend the Colorado Work Share Program indefinitely.

The program gives businesses the opportunity to keep their workers at reduced hours, rather than laying them off altogether.

Under the program, which businesses can enter into on a voluntary basis, employees receive prorated unemployment benefits to compensate for the loss of hours.

Workers can receive up to 26 weeks of prorated unemployment benefits through Colorado Work Share, under recent federal changes made to the program.

The program receives federal money for reimbursement, rather than adversely affecting the state’s Unemployment Insurance Fund.

Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada, a House sponsor of the bill, said the program allows businesses that are going through a “temporary tough time” to keep skilled workers, instead of losing them.

Kraft-Tharp said in a recent interview that the program helps companies like Vestas Wind Systems, which has reduced employees’ hours at their Brighton, Pueblo and Windsor wind-power factories.

“This is a pretty specialized field,” she said. “We don’t want to lose those people, or have them move away.”

The Work Share program, which was put in place in 2010, and is administered under the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, had to be taken up again by the General Assembly because it is scheduled to sunset in July.

The bill keeps the program going, while making adjustments to keep it in line with federal guidelines.

Kraft-Tharp acknowledges that the program isn’t well-known, and that only a handful of Colorado businesses are taking advantage of it. But she expects that to change soon.

“There was no money for Department of Labor staff time when it passed in 2010, so the state has not been able to promote this,” she said.

“But, with the new changes, we can access federal grants, so we can allocate staff time to support it.”

Republicans are opposed to the continuation of the program. The bill passed the Senate without any GOP support in March, and again in the House on April 2.

Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, said during a recent debate on the House floor that businesses that pay into the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund could essentially end up paying the wages for competitors’ workers, even though the workers are still employed there.

“So, potentially you can have a competitor down the street paying for the employees of a fellow competitor somewhere else in town,” DelGrosso said.

But Kraft-Tharp sees value in the program.

“The bottom line is, if you’re going to be laid off … and if we can help you, we’re going to help you,” she said. “It’s about keeping people employed and keeping their paychecks coming home.”

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