Paid family leave advocates rally in Wilmington: ‘We can’t afford the cost of inaction’

Initiatives at the federal and state level would provide paid leave for new parents and people with or caring for a child, spouse, or parent with a serious illness.

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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)

When Nour Qutyan’s mother had a “breast cancer scare,” she wanted to travel from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to comfort and care for her. Qutyan was threatened with the loss of her restaurant job.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Qutyan had to take time off without pay when her housemates came down with COVID-19.

So the effort nationally and in neighboring Delaware to guarantee up to 12 weeks of paid family leave for all workers with a qualifying need drew Qutyan to Wilmington on Wednesday.

Qutyan was there to advocate for providing the benefit to new parents and those caring for a child, spouse, or parent with a serious illness.

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“It doesn’t make sense that taking time to take care of yourself or those you love is something you can get punished for with the loss of your job, your hours, or your pay,’’ Qutyan told a few dozen supporters.

“We cannot function as a society without our caretakers if we want to move forward bigger and better,” Qutyan said. “We need to treat caretakers with respect and dignity.”

“A lot of us, myself included, work in low wage jobs, even sub-minimum wage jobs with no paid time off. There’s no saving up hours for an emergency. You either work and make money or you have nothing at all.”

Qutyan was one of several speakers on the Christina riverfront. The Paid Leave for All bus tour spent an hour in Wilmington before trekking to Washington for another stop on its two-week, 14-city venture that started Monday in Providence, Rhode Island. The tour wraps up on Aug. 13 in Phoenix.

Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Paid Leave for All, says it’s long past time for a federal program that would guarantee 12 weeks of paid leave of up to $4,000 a month.

Paid family leave is in President Joe Biden’s proposed budget and would be paid for by higher taxes on the wealthy, she said.

“We believe this is the time, and we can’t afford the cost of inaction any longer,’’ Huckelbridge told WHYY News. “We’ve done polling in Senate battlegrounds, red states and blue, and we think that this is the year it happens.”

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Dawn Hucklebridge of Paid Leave for All says she believes Congress is ready to approve the initiative. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

A handful of states, including New Jersey, already have a paid family leave law on the books.

Huckelbridge says she supports state programs in addition to a federal one.

“We believe that people love them,’’ she said. “So we do want a federal law to ensure that you have access to paid leave no matter where you live or who you work for. But we do believe that those state programs should continue.”

In Delaware, state Sen. Sarah McBride is sponsoring a bill that, in addition to new parents and family caregivers, would provide paid family leave to victims of domestic violence and families impacted by military deployment. Delaware state employees already get paid family leave.

“The time has come to embrace the fact that we will all at one time or another experience the joys and heartbreak of life,’’ McBride said. “And whether a person is facing COVID or cancer, a global public health crisis or an individual health crisis, no one should be forced to choose between their job and their family, between their paycheck and their health.”

McBride’s bill is supported by the Delaware Council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

It would be paid for by a tax of 0.8% of a person’s pay, with at least half paid by the employer. The tax for a person paid $50,000 a year would be $400 annually, with the employee paying no more than $200.

Nour Quotyan addresses the rally while Dawn Huckelbridge of Paid Leave for All observes. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Because the bill would levy the fee, it needs a three-fifths majority in both the state House and Senate to become law. McBride expects to get a vote next year when the General Assembly is back in session and says she hopes the federal initiative passes so that Delaware won’t need a law mandating paid family leave.

Michael Quaranta, president of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, called the issue of paid family leave “the intersection of the needs of employees and their family and employers” and said he’s working with McBride “to discuss the challenges that employers and employees face.”

Quaranta said that in the 28 years since the Family Medical Leave Act guaranteed unpaid leave for workers at businesses with 50 employees, “many businesses — regardless of their size — have adopted FMLA-like policies … Our stance will develop as we learn more from our diverse group of business members.”

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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