House OKs paid leave for state employees

DOVER — The House on Tuesday passed a bill that would give state employees 12 weeks of paid leave upon the birth of a child. In a 27-13 vote that fell mostly along party lines, the chamber approved what would be the most generous family leave policy in the United States.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

House Bill 3 would allow employees of state government or school districts to use up to 12 weeks of paid leave if they have a baby or adopt a child no older than 6. Leave would expire if not used after one year and would cover only full-time employees who have been with the state for at least a year.

It would apply to both mothers and fathers.

The bill was introduced in April 2017 but stalled last year due to a budget crunch. It has received more support this year, however, with Gov. John Carney in his January State of the State calling it “the right thing to do.”

But, as was evident Tuesday, some believe 12 weeks of paid leave is just too much. Republicans, all but three of whom voted against the measure, agreed with the concept but found several faults with the bill.

Members of the GOP argued the proposal would unfairly burden school districts with the responsibility of finding and paying more substitutes, could disrupt learning by allowing teachers to miss one-third of the school year and would be unfair to taxpayers, most of whom are not employed by the state.

“We have many people working in the state that would love to have a paid 12 week (leave). They’re the ones that are funding it, and they don’t have that same benefit,” Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, said.

Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley, noted no other state has a policy as extensive as House Bill 3 and said the General Assembly was “way overreaching” and potentially being irresponsible, while Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro, said the proposal would “cause total disruption for many of our children” in schools.

While Gov. Carney supports the proposal, Secretary of Education Susan Bunting said the Department of Education is neutral and has heard from districts worried they would be unable to find qualified substitutes and would struggle to cover the increased expenses if the bill passes.

The bill carries an estimated cost of about $3.9 million to the state and $1.3 million split between districts in the first full fiscal year.

Democrats defeated an amendment that would have lowered the available leave to six weeks and rejected an argument from Minority Whip Deborah Hudson, R-Hockessin, that recipients should have to agree to stay with the state for a certain amount of time after getting the benefit.

“I just want to remind this body that those 12 weeks that you are with a child, I don’t think you can put a price on that,” Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, said.

According to a 2013 study, the United States is one of only eight countries — and the only “high-income” nation — that does not offer paid leave to new mothers. Four states currently have paid leave policies, although those are less expansive than House Bill 3.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 requires employers to allow individuals to take 12 weeks off to care for a family member or new child. However, it does not mandate they be paid, and so many state employees are forced to exhaust their sick and vacation time upon having a child.

Supporters Tuesday noted the lack of required paid maternity and paternity leave, arguing Delaware would be helping right a major wrong by passing the bill.

“The United States of America has the worst record among advanced nations on mandatory maternity leave. That’s a fact,” Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, said.

Many of the arguments made Tuesday, Rep. Lynn said, were similar to ones used to oppose the FMLA 25 years ago and ultimately were not borne out then.

Republican opponents said individuals should save up their sick and vacation time and teachers should try to plan their pregnancies around the summer, and a few questioned what the state would do if several state troopers have children at the same time and take their leave.

Democrats pushed back strongly, noting the measure would not take effect immediately, allowing officials to develop internal policies and plans.

Supporters also said the bill already contains safeguards of sorts by requiring individuals to work with the state for at least a year before taking the leave and could have other benefits.

“We feel strongly that this 12 weeks of parental leave will help the school districts and the state recruit and retain employees,” main sponsor Rep. Debra Heffernan, D-Bellefonte, said.

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