Guest Commentary: Wisdom of paid family leave questioned

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Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro, represents District 41 in the Delaware House of Representatives.

Paid family leave is a benefit for some, with very significant downsides for all.

Under a 2018 state law, any full-time state or public school worker that has been employed for at least one year is entitled to 12 weeks of paid leave upon the birth of a child or the adoption of a child 6 years of age or younger. The leave can be taken at any time within a year of the birth or adoption.

According to a recent Delaware Department of Human Resources report, 1,897 combined workers took paid family leave during fiscal year 2021 (1,192 women and 705 men). Of those taking the benefit, 616 were in the executive branch, 97 were nonexecutive branch, and 1,184 were school workers.

About 7.5% of all eligible employees utilized paid parental leave in fiscal year 2021, although education workers used it at a slightly higher rate of 7.7%.

The report was quick to tout the perceived benefits of the entitlement, noting that newborns of moms with paid leave were more likely to be breastfed, receive medical checkups and get critical immunizations. Additionally, it stated that paid leave increased the likelihood of women returning to the workplace after giving birth.

However, with these reputed returns come troubling societal costs.

According to the report, while the duration of leave for public school workers was not disclosed, other state employees who took it used nearly the full benefit, with men averaging 11.5 weeks and women 12 weeks.

Assuming teachers use family leave like other state workers, every time an educator accesses the benefit, he or she is absent for approximately 360 instructional hours — more than a third of the annual instructional requirement of 1,060 hours. And since they can take the leave for up to one year after a birth or adoption, they can use it during the school year, even when they brought their new child home over the summer.

According to information supplied by the Department of Education, during fiscal year 2021, five school districts had 100 or more employees out on paid family leave: Appoquinimink (100), Indian River (104), Colonial (106), Christina (138) and Red Clay (159).

The chronic shortage of substitute teachers and the additional need due to paid family leave forced lawmakers to take action earlier this year. On July 1, the General Assembly sent to the governor House Bill 315 to provide state funding assistance for public schools to hire full-time permanent substitute teachers. The measure is expected to carry an initial annual cost of $15 million. Ironically, the permanent substitutes will also be entitled to 12 weeks of paid family leave.

I fear paid family leave will further handicap Delaware students that were already disadvantaged after nearly two years of enforced remote learning. Regardless of how skilled a substitute teacher is, having the primary teacher absent for three months of the academic year creates an undeniable disruption to the education process. Even before the pandemic, the performance of our schools was subpar, and it is even less likely to improve now that we are providing a financial incentive for teachers to stay home.

According to the Delaware Report Card, during the 2020-21 academic year, less than 27% of students were proficient in math and 42.2% were proficient in English language arts.

Delawareans are also being shorted in other areas. Our state has yet to recover from the ill-considered COVID-19 lockdowns and reduced services fostered by remote working. Legislators have received numerous complaints from constituents about state agency delays in issuing permits or providing payments. In some cases, citizens have been waiting more than a year for state action. Family leave annually removes 7%-8% of employees from the state workforce for three months, so taxpayers are actually subsidizing a system guaranteed to further erode service.

Even in light of these regrettable impacts, our state is extending paid family leave to the private sector. A new law enacted in May will establish the benefit that will be financed with payroll taxes split evenly between workers and employers. Starting in 2026, private-sector employees will be able to take up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave per year.

Delaware joins 10 other states in creating a paid family leave program. In embracing this, without fully weighing all its costs, we have set our state on a path leading to worsening state services, chronically poor academic performance, higher costs for products and services, and increased stress on childless employees saddled with the thankless task of covering for their co-workers that are starting families.

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