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Paid sick, safety leave bill passes Labor Committee

Katie Tabeling
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House Bill 17 was voted out of committee with significant pushback from business owners and small business advocates. | DBT FILE PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

DOVER — A bill that would require all Delaware employers to provide their employees at least one hour of earned sick time for every 30 hours worked is making its way through the General Assembly — and even received the rare support of a gubernatorial candidate.

House Bill 17 would give workers the right to sick and safety leave after 90 days of employment with a company, paid at the employee’s regular wage and benefit rate. The benefit is capped at 40 hours per year and can be carried into the next year. Sick and safety leave applies to mental and physical needs, as well as time needed to care for a family member.

Under the bill, employers with nine employees or less may offer this benefit as unpaid time, but their job would remain protected during that time. If passed and signed by the governor, the law would go into effect on Jan. 1 2027. Civil fines for violations would cost at least $1,000 and no more than $5,000, if HB 17 becomes law.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Eric Morrison (D-Glasgow/Middletown), had filed a similar bill in 2022, but that effort failed to pass through the committee.

In the time since, Morrison has worked on the bill with support from AARP Delaware, NAACP Delaware, the Delaware Building and Trades Council, the League of Women Voters, public education officials and others.

“America is very behind in other countries when it comes to guaranteed paid sick time. Other states are starting to step up and there’s 18 other states and Washington D.C. that offer this,” Morrison told the Delaware Business Times. “This bill would cover everyday illnesses and could help victims of domestic violence as they look to escape their situation. A lot of businesses already offer the minimum amount of time requested.”

The bill received pushback from small business owners and local chamber of commerce leaders during its hearing before the House Labor Committee on April 16 and support from a surprising source – President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation Collin O’Mara, who is also running for govenor. He testified that when he was the head of Delaware Department of Natural Resources, contractional seasonal employees did not have paid leave.

“We made a change for that to happen and we found a few things. The return to work was very quick. The productivity went up, the engagement in the field improved and overall the bottom line got better,” O’Mara said during the committee meeting. “I want to thank Rep. Morrison for this, because there’s a lot of folks who would love to be here today, but they can’t take the time off. I hope this bill passes so we can have a debate on the floor.” 

HB 17 with amendments was voted out of the House Labor Committee and now awaits a hearing in the Appropriations Committee. 

Delaware Restaurant Association President and CEO Carrie Leishman argued that requiring this benefit for new employees will hurt many of the small businesses that run on slight revenue margins and small staff.

In Delaware, 21% of all employees work for companies with at least 10 employees and at most 49 employees, according to the Department of Labor’s Office of Occupational & Labor Market Information. A quarter of employers, or 8,470, in the state have between 10 and 49 employees.

“Restaurants are unique businesses. We have razor-thin margins and we don’t have Human Resource directors. We value flexibility, and so do the people that work for us,” Leishman told the House Labor Committee last week.

Roma Italian restaurant owner Kristin Garramone Jr. said that her family made many sacrifices for the business during the COVID-19, including forgoing a salary for months and spending down savings to keep staff on the payroll.

“The hospitality industry trains us to work hard, build your way up and earn your success. We’ve spent a lifetime doing that. We worry that this bill has the expectation of big business pockets while significantly impacting the small,” Garramone said.

Anita Wheeler-Bezy, co-owner of La Baguette Bakery in Dover and Lewes, emotionally told legislators that if HB 17 passed as written, it was likely that her business would close its doors.

“My husband gets to work at 2 a.m. to make everything by hand. If a baker doesn’t show up, you have 300 baguettes to bake – and if your dishwasher doesn’t come in, you have a monumental task to complete. Imagine not having the staff to complete what you need to do in a day for the wholesale accounts,” Wheeler-Bezy said.

Lobbyists and leaders from the local chamber of commerce also testified against the bill, with some arguing that small businesses handle time off on a day-to-day basis. Joe Fitzgerald, a lobbyist that represents the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce, made the case that there was significant overlap with the paid family and medical leave act that will go into effect in 2026.

“We still haven’t fully implemented family leave yet. One thing that is concerning is there’s no right to appeal the decision by the Department of Labor yet in the bill,” he said.

Delaware State Chamber of Commerce Public Policy and Government Relations Director Tyler Micik testified against the bill, arguing that small businesses already have policies in place for employees who may need unexpected time off. Furthermore, the bill’s language may open the doors for lawsuits.

“Many businesses, including almost all our members, have sick leave policies. These policies are well-understood by employees and communicated frequently even during the interview or hiring process. Today, with millions of vacant job openings and fewer unemployed people than there are jobs, workers have options, and the few employers who may not have sick leave policies, are losing out on potential hires. Job seekers have options and many options at that,” Micik told the Delaware Business Times.

Rep. Morrison argued that this bill would address those who feel as if they cannot miss a day of work early in their tenure, or may not have sick time at all.

“I’m talking about the people at the lower socio-economic end of the spectrum: single mothers, caregivers, people of color, military spouses. Right now, 20% of seniors are working during retirement to make ends meet, and that number keeps rising. Those workers are in places that are part-time and don’t offer paid sick time.”

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