Lawmakers question start date of paid parental leave

DOVER — In June, the General Assembly passed legislation that, starting April 1, mandates 12 weeks of paid leave to new parents who work for the state government.

One problem: There’s uncertainty about who exactly should be covered, and when.

State officials say the benefit begins April 1, no earlier. But some are concerned about the inequity that creates.

At its most extreme, it means someone who has a child March 31 would have to use his or her accumulated sick leave or go without pay during the duration of the break, while a state employee who gives birth one day later would receive a full 12 weeks of paid time off.

It’s a situation lawmakers and budget officials are currently reviewing to determine how many people would be impacted and what the cost to the state would be in the event the General Assembly passes legislation prorating the leave. Such a change would only apply to people already on leave for the birth or adoption of a child when April 1 rolls around.

Legislators on the Joint Finance Committee briefly discussed the issue Thursday, with Rep. Quinn Johnson, a Middletown Democrat who co-chairs the committee, painting the situation as unfair to some.

Because the General Assembly does not reconvene again until March 5, lawmakers would have a relatively short window to pass legislation affecting the implementation.

It’s estimated the bill in its current form would cost the state about $3.91 million per year, with another $1.26 million split between school districts.

Because the measure does not take effect until the last three months of this fiscal year, the cost for the current year comes to about $1.29 million overall.

Expanding the coverage would obviously increase the cost in the current budget.

Most of the cost stems from hiring substitute teachers, with the state and districts sharing the expense.

A fiscal note attached to the bill estimates 446 births per year attributable to teachers.

“Yes, you’re going to have to pay for two people for one job during a period of time,” Rep. Johnson said.

Rep. Earl Jaques, a Glasgow Democrat, noted the measure means some students will effectively be without their regular teacher for a third of the school year.

Making matters worse is the fact Delaware struggles to find qualified substitutes, likely due to the relatively demanding nature of the job and comparatively low pay.

Per the fiscal note, the median pay for a long-term substitute teacher in Delaware is $151 per day.

As a result, the state often must settle for a “warm body,” Rep. Jaques said.

“Then we hold the child accountable for that subject at the end of the year, and just think, one-third of the time could be with that warm body,” he told his colleagues.

Rep. Ruth Briggs King, a Georgetown Republican, noted she raised similar concerns during the debate over the bill. She introduced an amendment at the time to cut the provided leave from 12 weeks to 150 hours, but it was defeated on party lines.

“These two things, they could have been, they should have been foreseen,” said Rep. Briggs King, who has worked in human resources.

Gov. John Carney supported the original bill, but his office did not respond to a request for comment on whether he would back legislation prorating the leave.

The federal Family Medical Leave Act requires businesses to give employees up to 12 weeks off to care for a newborn, although said leave is unpaid. Only four states currently offer paid family leave, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Employee and retiree bonuses

JFC on Thursday also touched on bonuses paid to state workers and retirees last year.

To qualify for the one-time $500 payment, employees had to be on the payroll both on July 8 and Oct. 28. Pensioners who retired before July 1 received $400.

Due to the timing, individuals who retired from state service in that four-month window “fell through the cracks,” as Sen. Bruce Ennis, a Smyrna Democrat, put it.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mike Jackson told lawmakers there is a precedent for the dates picked, noting pension increases typically do not go to individuals who retired within the past year.

“There’s always these trip-ups that happen in these processes,” he explained.

Lawmakers may revisit the issue in the coming months.

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