Paid family and medical leave poised to become law in Delaware

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A group of people gather behind Delaware State Sen. Sarah McBride as she speaks at a podium.

File photo: Delaware State Sen. Sarah McBride said workers should not have to decide between "their paycheck and their health." (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Delaware is poised to become the 10th state to provide paid family leave after revisions to an earlier bill gained widespread legislative support as well as the backing of the state’s largest employer and most powerful business group.

The Healthy Delaware Families Act has benefited from a yearlong series of rallies, meetings and lobbying efforts. The measure would take effect in 2026 and provide new parents with up to 12 weeks of paid leave.

The bill also would guarantee up to six weeks of paid leave every two years to workers addressing their own serious health condition, caring for a family member with such a condition, or those affected by a family member’s military deployment.

No employee could take more than 12 weeks of total paid leave in a single year, however. The  benefit is capped at 80% of an employee’s salary or $900 a week, whichever is lower.

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Workers at companies with at least 25 employees would be eligible for all the benefits. Those at companies with 10 to 24 employees would only be eligible for parental leave, and companies with fewer than 10 employees would not be required to participate but could choose to opt into the plan.

The money will come from a new state insurance account funded by a payroll tax that employees can split 50-50 with employees — like the Social Security payroll tax deduction. Employers, however, can shoulder up to 100% of the tax if they choose.

New Jersey and New York are among the nine states that provide paid family or medical leave, but Pennsylvania is not.

While President Biden’s effort to provide for paid family leave nationwide has stalled, the revised legislation in Delaware — spearheaded by state Sen. Sarah McBride — passed the Senate this week in a 14-7 vote. All Democrats supported it and all Republicans voted no.

Senate passage ‘marks historic milestone’ for working families

The passage by the Senate “marks a historic milestone in our fight to make sure working families in Delaware are never again forced to make an impossible choice between earning a paycheck and staying home to welcome a newborn or provide care for a family member fighting for their life,” McBride said this week.

Now Senate Bill 1 moves to the Democrat-controlled House, where Rep. Deb Heffernan, the lead sponsor in that chamber, said she’s virtually certain it will garner the 60% of votes needed to become law. Gov. John Carney has said he supports the bill.

“I am confident, very confident that SB 1 will pass through the House and become law,’’ Heffernan said. “There’s overwhelming support not only in the General Assembly but a recent poll of Delawareans showed 85% support it.”

Democrats control the House by a 26-15 majority, one more vote than necessary to clear the three-fifths majority needed because it levies a new tax.

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Since 2019, full-time state government and school employees have been eligible for 12 weeks of paid parental leave at 100% of their salary, at no cost to the worker.

To establish and replenish the fund, employers would pay a total of 0.8% of their payroll to the fund — 0.40% for personal medical leave, 0.32% for parental leave, and 0.08% for caregiver and military leave.

Companies could deduct half of the contribution — 0.4% for employees at companies with 25 or more workers — from each covered employee’s paycheck or pay the entire 0.80% themselves.

The total cost per $1,000,000 of annual payroll is $8,000. If a company opts for splitting the cost with employees, someone earning $50,000 a year would have $200 deducted from their check annually.

Companies that already have a leave plan that’s comparable or exceeds the benefits in the bill  would not have to participate.

The money would be collected starting in 2025 and the benefits would kick in on Jan. 1, 2026. That’s two years later than the original legislation introduced in 2021 which called for the benefit to start no later than April 2024.

The original legislation also required all employers to participate, instead of the exemption for smaller companies now in the bill.

ChristianaCare healthcare system, the state’s largest employer with about 12,000 staff, endorsed the bill and already provides 12 weeks of fully paid parental leave.

Paid leave for workers ‘will attract people to Delaware’

The hardship on smaller companies would have been too much under the initial bill, said Michael Quaranta, president of the Delaware state Chamber of Commerce.

He cited, for example, a company of 20 people whose sole human resources officer had a baby and took parental leave. That company would likely have to replace that officer, whereas in a larger company with a larger HR department, another worker could pick up the duties of someone on leave, he said.

Quaranta said he’s satisfied with the change that exempts companies with fewer than 10 workers and only obligates those with 10 to 24 workers to provide paid parental leave.

While he doesn’t think it’s a perfect bill, he says the chamber is supportive.

“We are OK with it,’’ Quaranta said. “I think it could be further improved but we have it now, after hours of conversation and discussion with [Sen. McBride], got this into a position where most of our members are comfortable with what the words mean and what the policies will require of them.”

Liz Richards, director of the Delaware Cares Coalition for Paid Leave, said the 50 state-based organizations in her group are delighted. Members include the AFL-CIO, American Civil Liberties Union, Black Mothers in Power, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, Delaware Center for Justice, Delaware Nurses Association. Delaware Poor People’s Campaign, Jewish Family Services and Prevent Child Abuse Delaware.

The coalition saw an urgent void that needed to be filled, Richards said.

“We’re really, really seeing a need not being met,’’ she said. “Eighty percent of Delawareans do not have paid family and medical leave. So when they’re put in a situation where they have to choose between earning a paycheck or staying home because they’re sick or there’s a loved one they need to take care of, they’re put in an impossible choice.”

She credited McBride and other lawmakers for carrying the ball on the bill.

“We have been pushing together and we’ve seen such momentum for this issue because it’s really resonating with families,’’ she said. “This is really huge for not only Delaware families, but for Delaware businesses who often are squeezed in the competition for talent. We know paid family and medical leave is something that attracts people to the workforce, will attract people to Delaware.”

Heffernan, who represents the Bellefonte area north of Wilmington, said extending leave to all  workers in larger companies is a natural extension of the three-year-old benefit for state government workers.

“Our parental leave program has been an undeniable success, improving the health and wellbeing of families while boosting state employee recruitment and retention,’’ Heffernan said.
“As we did before in creating a program for state workers, Delaware must again lead on leave.”

Carney agreed.

“This legislation builds on the work we’ve done for state employees and extends paid leave into the private sector,’’ the governor said. “It’s the right thing to do, and it will help attract a talented workforce to live, work, and raise their families in Delaware.”

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