Commentary: Paid family leave would be boon to state’s workers, small businesses

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In 1993, I opened a coffee shop in Delaware called Brew HaHa! From the start, I wanted to create a place where customers felt at home, where neighbors met up and where new friends struck up conversations over their favorite cups of coffee. The business has grown to more than eight locations since then, but even now, more than a quarter-century later, each location is a place where customers can find community — that was until COVID-19.

When the pandemic hit, maintaining that kind of atmosphere was out of the question. Gathering at our coffee shops just wasn’t safe. I know I’m not alone among small-business owners when I say there were times I was afraid we’d have to close our doors for good.

COVID-19 wreaked havoc on small businesses like mine, in Delaware and across the country. But after everything that’s happened over the past year — from lockdown restrictions to finding new ways to adapt — I hope business owners learn one lesson more than any other: All workers deserve paid time off from work to take care of themselves and their loved ones.

The reasons should be obvious by now. COVID-19 caused medical emergencies when someone was exposed to the virus or needed to care for a loved one. With school and child care closures, parents suddenly had an increase in caregiving responsibilities. Without time off from work, many people had to quit their jobs. As a result, by the end of 2020, 13,000 Delawareans had dropped out of the workforce. As a business that prides itself on hiring and promoting from within, losing a good employee to a family or health emergency benefits no one.

A pandemic is far from the only instance that workers need time away from work. Over the years, I’ve seen workers make impossible choices when they came down with a serious illness, wanted to bond with a new child or needed to care for a family member. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, more than half of Delaware’s workforce is not protected under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which offers job protection for employees facing a covered medical event. As a result, when faced with an illness or the birth of a child, many Delawareans leave the workforce all together.

Our company has tried to remedy that. Well before COVID-19 hit, Brew HaHa! offered managers paid time off, as well as two weeks of paid maternity and paternity leave. Then, during the pandemic, we made all our workers eligible to accrue paid time off.

These benefits make good business sense. Our workers are the heart and soul of our business. They greet our customers and make them feel welcome. They learn our customers’ names and memorize their orders. They create the kind of atmosphere we strive for at our coffee shops. So we invest lots of time in training new employees and promoting from within. Paid leave results in less turnover. In turn, that strengthens our team and bottom line. No matter the industry, paid leave helps businesses recruit and retain workers, which reduces the cost of constantly needing to hire and train new staff members.

Still, the benefits we’re able to offer are not enough to meet the needs of all our workers. That’s just the reality of the slim margins in the retail coffee business or any small business. That’s what makes a paid family and medical leave program so appealing to a business like mine.

Delaware lawmakers recently introduced a bill that would create a paid leave program, allowing residents to access up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. If that program passes, for about the cost of a cup of coffee each week, I will be able to cover an employee’s paid leave benefits. That program would be a game changer for Brew HaHa!, allowing us to provide a new benefit that we couldn’t offer on our own — one that will continue to allow us to hire and grow within our Delaware community.

As our society reopens after such a devastating year, it’s worth it for all of us — including the business community — to consider what we want to reinstate and what we need to reimagine.

For me, I’m excited to see our customers in our stores once again, sitting around our tables or on our comfy couches, sipping their coffee with friends, co-workers and neighbors.

But as our businesses and economy recover from COVID-19, it is time to reimagine support for workers, so they no longer have to choose between their family or their paycheck. Paid leave is a must for all workers, and all business owners should support it.

Alisa Morkides is owner of Brew HaHa!, which has nine locations in Delaware.