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Advocates lobby for national paid leave law

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State Sen. Sarah McBride speaks at a national bus tour stop in Wilmington for the Paid Leave for All campaign on Aug. 4. | DBT PHOTO BY TAYLOR GOEBEL

WILMINGTON – Delaware lawmakers, local business owners and progressive leaders joined the Paid Leave for All campaign’s bus tour stop on Wednesday morning at Wilmington’s Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park, calling for a national paid family and medical leave program for workers across the U.S.

“It helps small businesses. It helps large businesses,” U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) said of the policy during Wednesday’s press conference. “We know that small businesses have been hurting, and we need to make sure that we strengthen our small businesses as well as our country.”

Since 1993, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has protected workers’ jobs in times of extended leave but does not require that their time away be paid.

President Joe Biden, who voted for the original 1993 law as a senator, promised a national paid FMLA program while running against Donald Trump during the 2020 election. In April, he included it in a proposed economic package called the American Families Plan.

Biden’s policy would provide workers with 12 weeks of paid leave and up to $4,000 a month in partial wage replacement. It is estimated to cost $225 billion over the next decade.

The president’s plan could nullify similar efforts in Delaware: In the midst of the federal push for paid FMLA, State Sen. Sarah McBride (D-Wilmington) paused her own legislation, Senate Bill 1, which would establish an equivalent program in Delaware.

McBride said Wednesday that she is “more optimistic” than ever that Congress will pass national legislation requiring employers across the country to offer paid family and medical leave under the federal program.

“It’s unusual to be rooting against your own legislation, but I’m hoping my bill never needs to come to a final vote,” she said.

Both proposals would guarantee that workers receive partial wage replacement to bond with a new child, seek medical attention, care for a sick family member, adjust to a loved one’s military deployment or find safety from domestic violence.

Democratic lawmakers say that such a policy would make smaller businesses more competitive against larger employers that often already offer those benefits.

Brew HaHa! owner and founder Alisa Morkides speaks at the Paid Leave for All event in Wilmington on Aug. 4. | DBT PHOTO BY TAYLOR GOEBEL

“Small local businesses like ours don’t have the spending power of large national chains,” Brew HaHa! owner Alisa Morkides said during the press conference. “That will put us on a more level playing field with the big guys in hiring and retaining and promoting high-quality [employees].”

McBride had unveiled the Healthy Delaware Families Act in May, one week after Biden revealed his plans to create a national paid FMLA program.

Under McBride’s proposal, the state labor department 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 less than 20 employees would be able to opt out of the employer contribution.

Eligible Delaware workers could receive up to 80% of their average weekly wages through the state insurance program. McBride said the program would be “little or no cost” to businesses.

If there is no movement on the federal level, Delaware lawmakers are likely to move forward with SB1 next year when they return to session next January.

“Nobody should be forced to choose between a job and a paycheck,” Morkides said. “Payday for all is the right thing to do and it’s long overdue.”

Although some small businesses like Brew HaHa! publicly backed the proposal in SB1, the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce voiced concerns 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.

“We would like to study the impacts of policies that permit 12 weeks of paid leave and assess the experienced usage. It seems logical that if an employee is eligible for 12 weeks of paid leave, they might take all 12 weeks because there is no incentive to return to work if after six weeks, for example, their situation has been resolved and rejoining the workplace is reasonable,” the chamber wrote in a letter to McBride listing other concerns as well.

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