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Revised paid leave bill SB1 clears committee

Katie Tabeling

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

DOVER — The highly anticipated bill for paid family and medical leave has passed its first test, within days of Sen. Sarah McBride (D-Wilmington) and Democrats revising the measure for provisions key to small businesses.

Senate Bill 1 passed the Senate Health & Social Services Committee on Wednesday, after two hours of public comment from medical professionals, health advocates and other activists as well as representatives from three local chambers of commerce. The bill passed with a 4-1 vote, with one senator absent.

“The hearing reinforced the need for paid leave in Delaware, and hearing from personal stories from those who would benefit and providers has shined a light on how this bill will truly impact Delawareans for the better,” McBride told the Delaware Business Times.

SB1 will be scheduled for a floor vote in March once the General Assembly reconvenes, she said.

McBride and Democrats filed SB1 last May, but it never saw a vote. The senator then took the months as an opportunity to tour the state, hosting listening tours in each county and meeting with business leaders. McBride then filed revisions on Monday, noting that while she stood behind the first draft, she strove to be an “inclusive leader” for Delawareans.

As revised, SB1 would require employers to offer 12 weeks paid parental leave and six weeks for medical and caregiving leave through a state social insurance program. Under the bill, eligible Delaware workers could receive up to 80% of their average weekly wages or up to $900 through the state-run insurance program.

To qualify for family leave, “family” is now defined as spouse, child or parents rather than the more ambiguous “significant personal bond.”

Heeding warnings from businesses in the tourism sector, the revised SB1 also requires employees to work for an employer for at least a year in order to qualify for the benefit. Businesses with less than 10 employees would not automatically qualify for paid parental leave, and those with 25 employees or less would not be covered for caregiving or medical leave. Both categories of businesses would have to op-in.

Finally, the revised bill delays business contributions to 2025 and would make benefits available in 2026.

Representatives from chambers of commerce, such as the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce, Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce and the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce thanked McBride for taking their comments into account for the revised bill. However, some concerns remain on the burden it would place on businesses.

“Many small businesses and nonprofits will find it exceedingly difficult to temporarily pay employees out on leave, specifically companies with skilled trades, educational institutions, medical practices, small practices and tech start-ups,” said Joe Fitzgerald, lobbyist for the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce. “The payroll contribution will be a considerable expense for many.”

Scott Kidner, the lobbyist for the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, outright argued that businesses will “suffer” from the .8% contribution in the face of rising inflation and will “eventually impact the consumer.”

The revised bill also provides language to businesses who fail to make contributions to be hit with a civil penalty “not less than $1,000 nor more than $5,000” for each violation, and it also opens up employers to be liable for damages.

“We do have definite concerns about private class action,” said lobbyist Lincoln Willis, representing the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce. “But we’re moving forward, and we’re still working through the issues.”

However, much of the testimony was provided by health advocates and social justice activists who argued that the bill would holistically improve the state’s economy by supporting workers who are in the low-income bracket and may not have access to programs through their jobs. 

Ernesta Coursey testified that when she was working as a hair stylist and pregnant with her first child, she had to “save every tip she earned for nine months” to pay for six weeks of leave.

“At 18 years old, I was incredibly proud of myself. I was able to do that, but there’s a lot of people who won’t or can’t,” Coursey said. “It desperately needs to be done for Delaware.”

Lisa Goodman, a lobbyist representing ChristianaCare, cited studies that showed that 34% of workers in the highest wage brackets have access to paid leave through their employers compared to 7% in the lowest wage wage bracket.

“Access to paid medical leave is not as accessible for lower wage workers and those in underserved communities, especially those who were Black and Latina, and all of these communities often struggle with chronic health issues and health inequities at a higher rate than other populations,” Goodman said.

Andrea Brown Clarke, of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, noted that the pandemic has accelerated the need for paid family leave, as many Black and Latina women left the workforce, and historically, two-thirds of Black women are a home’s breadwinner.

“When my grandmother became ill in 2007, my family attempted to provide patchwork care until this was no longer an option,” Clarke said. “When she moved in with me was actually the catalyst for me leaving corporate America, and I never looked back. It was the best choice, but a hard one.”

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