Delaware Senate committee OKs new family leave bill

By Logan B. Anderson
Posted 1/26/22

DOVER — An updated attempt to create a 12-week paid family and medical leave program in the First State was heard Wednesday by the state Senate’s Health & Social Services …

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Delaware Senate committee OKs new family leave bill


DOVER — An updated attempt to create a 12-week paid family and medical leave program in the First State was advanced Wednesday by the state Senate’s Health & Social Services Committee.

In May 2021, Sen. Sarah McBride, D-Wilmington, introduced Senate Bill 1, a measure outlining a new family and medical leave program, but it received pushback from the business community.

Since then, Sen. McBride has been working to create a new bill — Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 1 — the Healthy Delaware Families Act.

The act moves to create a statewide paid family and medical leave insurance program or require employers to provide a similar benefit. If enacted as presented, Delaware employees could access up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for a qualifying event. A pcause for need could be a worker’s own health, to care for a family member, to bond with a new child or to address the impact of a family member’s military deployment.

Sen. McBride called the effort a “life-saving support system for Delaware workers and their families when they need it most.”

The Wilmington Democrat said her bill is modeled after similar programs already in use in nine U.S. states and Washington.

The initiative would create a statewide insurance program that could provide up to 80% of an employee’s wages for up to 12 weeks for eligible Delaware workers. The bill supports three months of leave for parents and six weeks of personal medical, family caregiving and military impact leave.

The program would be funded by a new payroll tax; amounting to less than 1% of wages split between the employer and the employee.

“For a $15 an hour worker, that amounts to roughly the cost of a cup of coffee a week,” Sen. McBride said.

The legislation would also allow for employers to opt out of the state’s program provided they offer a similar or more generous program on their own.

Sen. McBride said the work to introduce her new substitute bill was the byproduct of nearly yearlong discussions. She said she spent more than 100 hours talking with those potentially impacted by the bill on how to improve the legislation and that the bill introduced this week includes “meaningful compromises on issues like covered relationships, eligibility, length of leave implementation timeline and not requiring participation from certain smaller businesses.”

“This is a Delaware solution for Delaware families. Because what’s clear is that the status quo is not only unsustainable, its cruel,” Sen. McBride said.

“Today in our state, the vast majority of Delaware workers do not have access to paid leave, and the majority don’t even have access to unpaid leave. Whether you’re facing the challenging joys of welcoming a child into your family or the fear of a cancer diagnosis, Delaware workers shouldn’t be forced to choose between their health and their job, their family, or their paycheck. The Healthy Delaware Families Act helps to address those impossible choices through a statewide paid leave insurance program.”

All 14 Democratic state senators have signed on to sponsor SS1 for SB1. In the House of Representatives, 20 Democrats have signed on to the bill.

Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, said Wednesday he’s heard some concerns raised about the new bill.

“I’m curious to see what some of the members of our business community are going to say. I realize this is something that’s good for families. We also have to look at the businesses that are employing them as well and making sure that they can handle something like this; not only the additional cost, but the reduction in their workforce, especially if they have a husband and wives that work at the same company,” Sen. Pettyjohn said.

Sen. McBride cited multiple studies of programs in other states that have shown no real negative impacts from family and personal medical leave programs, including studies from New Jersey and the U.S. Department of Labor.

“This legislation doesn’t create life events. But what the data shows is that while the legislation doesn’t increase absences, it does increase the support for individuals when they are absent from work. And I think that’s an important statistic,” Sen. McBride said.

The public comment portion of Wednesday’s hearing was filled with overwhelming support for the measure but representatives from some of Delaware’s chambers of commerce expressed concern.

Scott Kidner, representing the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, expressed concern about the program paying up to 80% of wages. He said the rate could make employees abuse the system.

“We know we have to provide a hand up, but we don’t want to create too much of an incentive,” Mr. Kidner said.

During the public’s portion of the meeting, lawmakers heard from many people who used similar programs when they had their children or when they personally battled cancer.

Charonda Johnson spoke about how her family and many Delaware families could have benefited from the Healthy Delaware Families Act at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ms. Johnson, an Air Force veteran who served in Iraq, shared how COVID-19 took her father and how the act could have helped her family.

“My dad contracted COVID while singing on a worship team at a local church that had a COVID outbreak. The day after my dad was hospitalized, my mom started having symptoms. Then the caretaker my family hired from the church to care for my elderly grandparents tested positive. Next, my younger sister was hospitalized. She was very sick,” she said.

“Miraculously, my whole family except for my dad tested negative for COVID. Still, no one in my immediate or extended family could afford to take an extended period off from work unpaid since then, I’ve spoken to many families like mine that have multiple family members hospitalized. Some had family members die within days and weeks of each other. Paid time off is critical for families like ours,” Ms. Johnson said.