Women’s Bills Make Progress Through General Assembly

By Rep. Valerie Longhurst

The following column appeared in the October 30 edition of the (Wilmington) News Journal.

Several months ago, women legislators from both parties and many of our male colleagues stood together and announced an ambitious package of 11 bills to address a host of issues that impact Delaware women every day in their workplaces, doctors’ offices, homes and schools. It’s easy to roll out a series of bills with the best intentions, but the real challenge is getting the measures across the finish line and signed into law.

But that’s exactly what happened in the Delaware General Assembly this year. I’m proud to say that we passed seven of the 11 bills in a three-month span, all of which were signed into law by Gov. Markell. These new laws address issues in three major areas where reform is needed for Delaware women: justice and public safety, health care and employment. We intend to continue our work on the remaining four bills when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

So why did we take on this task? More and more often, we’re seeing women take on the role of breadwinners in their families and heads of their households. In Delaware, women represent more than half of our workforce, but unfortunately there are several areas where we lag behind in protecting women and providing them with the same opportunities as their male counterparts. These are areas we targeted to make positive change for Delaware women.

Among the bills we have passed so far:

Senate Joint Resolution 1: This resolution requires the Department of Justice to oversee an audit of all untested and un-submitted sexual assault kits in Delaware. It also establishes a work group tasked with creating systemic changes to ensure proper testing of all sexual assault kits in the future.

House Bill 4: Similar to bills enacted in Illinois, New York and Rhode Island, this new law protects employees by guaranteeing them the right to take leave based on circumstances of domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault and specifying that taking such leave is not grounds for termination or discrimination.

House Bill 2: This law ensures that law enforcement officers receive victim-centered, trauma-informed and offender-focused sexual assault training. Law enforcement and prosecutors often are the first point of contact for these victims, so it’s important that we make sure they are well-equipped to deal with these sensitive situations.

House Bill 3: This law requires any company awarded a state of Delaware contract to certify that it engages in fair wage practices and will provide its employees with equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender. We feel it is important for the state to lead by example when it comes to equal pay.

Senate Bill 84: Mirroring 16 other states, this law allows mothers who are currently breastfeeding their children to have their jury service postponed by the courts.

Senate Bill 51: This measure empowers judges to determine whether a victim or witness may appear at required court proceedings and give testimony via secured video connection from a separate location.

House Bill 81: This law adds to the existing Education Profile reports compiled by the state Department of Education the name and contact information for a federal Title IX coordinator for every public school, including public institutions of higher learning.

These new laws will positively impact thousands of women across all walks of life in Delaware. They are outstanding examples of what the General Assembly can and should do to make a difference in the lives of Delawareans. And while these accomplishments are worth noting, we will not rest on our laurels. We still have more work to do to improve women’s lives in Delaware.

Among the proposals we have on our desks when we return in January is a bill to allow full-time public employees to take up to 12 weeks of paid maternity or paternity leave. Many stress the importance of family and caring for our children, and if we truly share those values, we should back those values up with action. We also plan to address the issues of confidentiality between intimate crime victims and advocates, postpartum depression education and sexual assault reporting on college campuses.

I’m proud of the work our General Assembly has done this year on behalf of women throughout Delaware, and I am excited to complete the work we’ve started and continue to look for new opportunities to make Delaware a better place to live, work and raise a family.

Valerie Longhurst is the majority leader of the Delaware House of Representatives and represents the 15th District, serving Bear, Delaware City and St. Georges.