Guest Opinion: Lawmaker’s opinion on paid leave ‘out of touch’

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Mike Matthews of Wilmington is a teacher in the Red Clay Consolidated School District.

In recent years, Delaware has made great strides in making our state an attractive place to work and raise a family. Passing paid family leave for state workers and public school educators — and, more recently, passing legislation to extend the same security to private-sector workers in the coming years — has been a key part of that strategy.

Those success stories are helping Delaware families improve their quality of life, which is why it’s so concerning to read the recent commentary from state Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro, who shared his opinion that educator time away from the classroom should give the state pause in continuing this excellent benefit for state workers and educators (“Wisdom of paid family leave questioned,” Aug. 5).

As an educator for 13 years, I’m pressed to remember a time when I read an opinion that was so out of touch with what Delaware workers and families experience every day.

In questioning the wisdom of paid family leave for Delaware educators, Rep. Collins, in the same breath, says paid leave will exacerbate the teacher shortage and then writes that paid leave “increased the likelihood of women returning to the workplace after giving birth.” Rep. Collins does not explain how these two things can be true at once, perhaps because study after study shows that paid leave is one of the strongest employee-retention policies employers have at their disposal.

The facts are clear on paid leave. Multiple studies show that offering new parents 12 weeks of paid family leave decreases rates of postpartum depression and infant mortality, and improves physical and mental health of parents and baby — all facts Rep. Collins includes in his commentary.

In particular, this new benefit is critical for those in education, a profession staffed nearly 75% with women. For decades, women (and men!) in education have had to make tough choices between staying home to care for a newborn or returning to work to make sure they can put food on the table and pay their bills. In my district, educators in Delaware receive just seven sick and three personal days each year, so before paid family leave was passed, they’d have to use all of their accrued sick time if they wanted to stay home for a meaningful amount of time with their newborn. And if they had another child a few years later, good luck, because that accrued time was likely gone from their first child.

We do have a coming staffing crisis in Delaware’s schools, but the way to ameliorate that crisis is to improve upon — not repeal — laws that support educators and their families. At a time when Delaware teachers are overworked and underpaid, benefits like paid family and medical leave are not just necessities to balance work and family; they are the exact type of security that keeps teachers from seeking other employment. Indeed, Delaware’s parental-leave policy for public school educators, which has been in place for years, is one of our best recruiting tools for attracting talent from other states. If Rep. Collins had his way, Delaware would lose one of the best carrots we have to get dedicated teachers in our classrooms.

The reality is that paid leave doesn’t create life events. People have babies. People get sick. What paid leave does is ensure that those life events won’t make you financially destitute.

But you wouldn’t know that by reading Rep. Collins’ commentary. Shockingly, he cites “increased stress on childless employees saddled with the thankless task of covering for their co-workers” as a reason paid family leave should be reconsidered. Rep. Collins, with all due respect, I am a childless teacher who has had co-workers take leave to care for a new child numerous times over the last few years. Staffing in education isn’t in a crisis situation because a few of them are at home caring for newborns. The education staffing crisis is a wholly separate issue that needs to be treated as a systemic problem completely decoupled from a benefit that should have been provided to Delawareans decades ago.

The Healthy Delaware Families Act is the product of over a year’s worth of painstaking compromise, input and communication. It was a process so open that even those who initially opposed the legislation have acknowledged the unprecedented level of outreach and transparency that went into it, making it among the first of its kind among states nationwide in its flexibility and benefits for businesses and employers.

Ultimately, Rep. Collins is grasping at straws to come up with reasons to oppose a policy that is thoroughly researched, carefully vetted and widely supported across political party and affiliation. I am glad Delaware will join our neighbors, Maryland and New Jersey, and several other states across the country who are helping bring our economy into the 21st century by making sure paid leave is a given for every Delaware worker.

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