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McBride ramps up Delaware paid leave campaign

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State Sen. Sarah McBride speaks during a roundtable discussion Nov. 18 in Wilmington on her proposed paid leave bill. | DBT PHOTO BY TAYLOR GOEBEL

WILMINGTON – As U.S. lawmakers debate cutting paid family and medical leave from a federal spending bill, State Sen. Sarah McBride (D-Wilmington) is ramping up support for legislation that would establish a paid leave program in Delaware.

Senate Bill 1, introduced by McBride earlier this year, would require employers to provide up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave through a state social insurance program. The landmark bill was put on hold in June, when the 151st General Assembly concluded its first of two years.

The Delaware State Chamber of Commerce voiced concerns last session regarding the coverage, eligibility factors and implementation of the law. It recommended raising the threshold for businesses eligible to opt out up to 35 employees, better defining and limiting who would be eligible for the benefits, and potentially phasing in the 12-week benefit over several years.

SB1 could have been nullified by President Joe Biden’s federal proposal for a similar program under the Build Back Better Act, which would invest upward of $2 trillion in social safety net expansions in the U.S., including universal preschool, childcare and tax cuts for 39 million households.

A 12-week paid leave program was included in the original spending bill, but the latest version only requires four weeks, which advocates argue is not enough for new parents or caregivers of family members with long-term needs. Lawmakers may even cut paid leave from the economic package entirely in order to reduce costs, especially as a razor-thin Democratic margin in the U.S. Senate takes up the bill now.

“I think if any state is going to be the first state to implement 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, after it falls out of the Build Back Better Act, it’s going to be President Joe Biden’s home state,” McBride said during a roundtable discussion Thursday evening in Wilmington.

If the paid leave measure goes through in the federal bill, McBride said SB1 would need adjustments. The U.S. House of Representatives approved the Build Back Better Act with a four-week benefit in a party-line vote Friday morning.

McBride said under her proposed program, the Delaware Department of Labor would collect a paid leave premium of 0.8% of an employee’s gross wages, similar to how Social Security and unemployment programs work. Employers would split those contributions evenly with their workers, though businesses with fewer than 20 employees could opt out of the employer portion.

Eligible Delaware workers would be able to receive up to 80% of their average weekly wages through the state insurance program.

Business leaders, Democratic lawmakers and community advocates joined McBride on Thursday to discuss the bill at Brew Ha Ha coffeehouse, which is owned by Alisa Morkides, a supporter of SB1.

Joe Daigle, CEO of Mallard Financial Partners, said having a statewide paid leave program would have greatly reduced the company’s administrative burden last year, when an employee announced she was pregnant, a first for the business.

“Everyone was excited, but it also shed light on the fact that we had no policy for maternity, paternity or any other life event that family and medical leave would have addressed,” Daigle said, recalling how he and an HR manager scrambled to develop, implement and fund a policy for employees in need of paid leave.

AARP Delaware Advocacy Director Sheila Grant said a paid leave program could help the state’s 129,000 caregivers, amounting to about 13% of Delaware’s population.

That includes Nancy Lemus, a mother and survivor of domestic violence who couldn’t afford to take off work while her son was battling a serious illness for three months in a hospital.

“I never missed a day of work,” said Lemus, whose son also has cerebral palsy and requires round-the-clock care.

Shyanne Miller said a paid leave program would alleviate the financial burden on new mothers like herself. After giving birth to her daughter last August, the Delaware resident was in the hospital for 10 days with preeclampsia, a potentially fatal pregnancy complication. While she was able to cut into her vacation time, her husband wasn’t allotted paid time off by his workplace and couldn’t afford to stay by his wife’s side.

“For those 10 days, I didn’t know whether I was going to live or die, or if my child was going to live or die,” said Miller, a coordinator for Building People Power Program, a multi-issue campaign that seeks to address racial justice issues across Delaware.

Before State Sen. Kyle Evans Gay (D-Talleyville) became a mom, she was a practicing attorney advocating for paid leave at her firm.

“We were successful,” said Gay, who now has two young children. “But it shouldn’t take young women facing a wall in front of them in their careers for us to make this change. What we need is a comprehensive policy.”

A Senate Democrats spokesperson said McBride will host at least two more roundtable conversations in the coming months, one each in Kent and Sussex counties.

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