Coalition pushing for paid family leave for all

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DOVER — In 2018, lawmakers approved a bill providing state employees with 12 weeks of paid parental leave upon the birth of a child. Now, a coalition of three dozen organizations is calling on the Legislature to expand that to cover the private sector.

“If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can no longer afford an economy that forces people out of the workplace when a medical emergency strikes,” said Liz Richards, executive director of the Delaware Cares Coalition for Paid Leave. “Paid family and medical leave strengthens Delaware families, particularly working families and families of color, and will keep us competitive for the best talent in the nation.”

The coalition, which is composed of groups like the Working Families Party, AFL-CIO and NAACP, is hoping to make Delaware the 10th state with paid leave. Supporters want a leave insurance program to cover serious medical issues experienced by an employee or a close family member, as well as a birth, a family member’s military deployment or the impact of domestic violence.

Legislation to that end is expected to be filed by several Democratic legislators in the coming months, the coalition said.

During a virtual news conference Monday, several Delawareans relayed tales of having to balance work and caring for a family member, highlighting the intense stress and emotional toll it took.

“If they are facing a serious family or medical crisis, no matter how hard they try ... their heads and hearts are going to be divided. That serves no one well,” recalled small-business owner Jan White, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2016 and went through more than five months of intense chemotherapy.

“Allowing someone to focus on their family in a time of crisis to allow them to be where they belong and give their family what they need and then they can come back as valued team members without having to worry about paying the mortgage, paying the utilities, paying the health insurance, paying the medical equipment, is the right thing to do. We view this as a win for everyone.”

Ferdinand Feubodei agreed that paid leave is beneficial to both parties, saying it shows people their employers care, which in turn creates a sense of loyalty. Mr. Feubodei had to quit a job he liked to care for his wife and newborn child, an experience that exacerbated the worries he already had about his family.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 requires employers to allow individuals to take 12 weeks off to care for a family member or new child. However, it does not mandate they be paid, and so many state employees are forced to exhaust their sick and vacation time upon having a child.

According to a 2013 study, the United States is one of only eight countries — and the only “high-income” nation — that does not offer paid leave to new mothers.

During the legislative debate on paid leave for state workers in 2018, supporters characterized arguments from opponents as similar to ones used to oppose the FMLA, which ultimately were not borne out.

Still, paid leave remains a concern for many businesses and nonprofits. Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Judy Diogo said in December employers cannot bear the burden during the pandemic.

But to others, the devastation wrought by COVID-19 is all the more reason to approve such a policy.

“The pandemic has given us an opportunity to look at our systems that we have in place and make changes to better our communities,” Tyeisha Grier said.

Speakers Monday noted women, and in particular women of color, have been hit especially hard over the past year. From February through September, women made up almost 54% of the net job loss, per the National Women’s Law Center.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, 54% of Delaware workers are unable to access even unpaid leave through the FMLA.

Gov. John Carney’s office did not respond to a question about whether the governor supports paid family leave.