Colo. Dem Gov. Candidate Polis Suggests Jailing Business Owners Who Break Labor Laws

Polis: 'That's what my plan to do as Governor is'

Jared Polis
Jared Polis / Getty Images
November 2, 2018

Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee for governor of Colorado, suggested that he would support criminal penalties for employers who violate the state's labor laws.

The remarks were made at a June 2 candidate forum, according to Compass Colorado, a conservative non-profit in the state that broke video of the candidate's remarks.

You know, I had the opportunity last session in Congress to be the top Democrat on the Labor Subcommittee and really, what I found as I looked into it—and it's the same here in the state of Colorado—Is that we have good labor laws on the books, but they lack teeth and they lack enforcement.

So we propose adding real criminal penalties to violations of our labor laws. That's when executives and businesses will notice it. When they don't see it as a cost of doing business, but they see it as "Wait a minute, I could go to prison for doing wrong by the workers, and wage theft, or for firing somebody for retribution." So we can do that here in Colorado.

We can really push the envelope in making sure we are serious. As serious about enforcing our labor laws as we are about so many of our other laws. So that's what my plan to do as Governor is. I look forward to working with the legislature to get working on these bills and making sure we take implementation and enforcement seriously at all levels, and support workers when they choose to organize.

At the time of Polis's remarks, he was still competing for the party primary.

Gail Lindley, owner of Denver Bookbinding, which has been in business for 90 years, said Polis's comments were irresponsible.

"He's taking a cavalier attitude," she told the Washington Free Beacon by phone.

"Most small businesses are 'mom and pop' type. That's the basis of our economy. And to even propose that criminal time be served is ludicrous. Irresponsible, ludicrous, and it just makes me think he's on a power trip."

Colorado has not always shown their own state bureaucracy has the capacity to enforce their labor laws in a timely fashion.

In 2005, the Colorado General Assembly passed legislation that would increase fines for business owners who failed to stay current on their workers' compensation insurance.

At the time the bill passed, a fiscal note estimated that the new fines imposed by the legislation would net about $225,000 in new receipts to the state treasury each year.

However, in 2016, news broke that some business owners in the state were being fined anywhere from $250,000 to $800,000 individually for lapses in their workers' comp. The business owners claimed the insurance had lapsed unbeknownst to them, but the state department of labor didn't discover the lapse until years later, at which time it fined the businesses for all of the intervening time.

The Denver Post editorial board weighed in on the issue, saying, "Without the insurance, injured workers are on the hook in Colorado. And it's also hardly fair to require that companies pay for the costly insurance while others dodge the obligation."

"But the far more substantial problem is that businesses aren't finding out that they are in trouble oftentimes until months—or even years—after the fact," the editorial added later. "When the state notified [one business owner], he had been out of compliance for 2 1/2 years."

Polis has long been ranked as one of the 10 wealthiest persons in Congress, thanks in part to many small businesses he successfully founded in his youth.

"I feel like I shouldn't have to say this: but the jailing of business owners is not the policy of a moderate capitalist," Kelly Maher, executive director of Compass Colorado, said in a release.

The Polis campaign did not respond to a request for comment.