A sweeping new legislative proposal on Capitol Hill could give Congress a rare opportunity to address an issue that has long been on the backburner – paid family leave.
Today, only some workers have access to paid time off to care for their loved ones or their own medical needs.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have proposed a national paid leave policy so that all workers can take time out of work.
The Covid-19 pandemic has helped focus attention on the issue, which was largely untouched by Congress since the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 let workers take unpaid leave for family or medical reasons.
In 2020, a temporary program was put in place to reimburse businesses that offered paid leave to employees during the pandemic.
Now, lawmakers are negotiating the terms of a more permanent policy, which could give workers up to 12 weeks’ time off.
Advocates applaud the move, which would help bring the U.S. in line with other industrialized nations.
“Paid leave is really a cornerstone policy,” said Molly Day, executive director at Paid Leave for the United States. “It gets women back to work on the other side of Covid, it ensures small businesses can attract and retain talent, and on a global level, it actually makes us competitive.”
To be sure, paid family leave has drawn its share of criticism, particularly over how it would be paid for and how it could affect companies’ existing policies.
However, families who faced dire care needs say their lives would be different if they had had access to paid family leave when they needed it.
When Ashton Dargenzio, 29, of Pittsburgh gave birth to her now 18-month-old daughter, she was faced with the difficult decision between taking unpaid maternity leave or continuing to work so she could pay her bills.
“Because I’m a single mother, I didn’t really have a choice,” she said.
The situation was complicated by the fact that Dargenzio’s daughter went straight to the newborn intensive care unit when she was born.
Dargenzio, who had a C-section, was unable to stay in the hospital with her daughter due to Covid-19.
Instead, she would wake up early each morning to go to the hospital and breastfeed her daughter, and then sit in a separate hospital room to simultaneously use a breast bump and work. When she was done, Dargenzio would relocate to the hospital waiting room, where she would set up her work station again.
Dargenzio currently is a contract worker in information technology, which requires constant problem solving and repairs, she said.
That schedule carried on throughout what would have been her 12-week maternity leave.
“It was one of the most frustrating and stressful things I had ever had to experience in my life,” Dargenzio said.
“Not having the experience of paid leave opened my eyes to see how many people actually have to experience that,” she said.
Unfortunately for Dargenzio, the challenges of juggling work and her daughter’s care are expected to become even more complicated.
Because Dargenzio’s daughter has bilateral hip dysplasia, she will need to have three surgeries. That will leave her daughter with a cast from her waist down to her toes and very limited mobility.
Dargenzio anticipates taking a week off after each surgery to tend to her daughter. But the full recovery time after each procedure is expected to be around six weeks.
Having access to a paid leave policy would make the situation much easier, Dargenzio said.
Instead of worrying about how she is going to pay her rent and utility bills, she would be able to focus on her daughter’s needs.
“To be able to wake up in the morning and solely just focus on my daughter and her care and her health and her needs while she’s disabled, would be huge,” Dargenzio said.
“No parent should have to worry about something like that,” she said.
After Adrienne Streater, 45, gave birth to her first daughter, she returned to work 20 days after having an emergency C-section.
The South Carolina start-up company where she worked at the time did not have a formal leave policy. However, she was able to get some flexibility on how many days per week she worked in the office.
Still, caring for the new addition to their family, a daughter with special needs, was “beyond stressful” for Streater and her husband, she said.
Her daughter had to have surgery at 10 weeks old, and then again at 18 months old.
“There’s a famous Southern saying, ‘God won’t put more on you than you can handle,'” Streater said. “Well, that was a lie.”
Much of the worry from Streater’s first pregnancy followed her when she became pregnant with her second child, also a daughter, and contributed to postpartum depression, she said.
However, because Streater and her husband, Douglas, had moved from South Carolina to New York state, their experience the second time around was much different.
Her husband was able to take the four weeks of vacation time he had accrued at his job to help care for her and the baby. During that time, he still received full paychecks.
“We didn’t lose a beat from a financial standpoint,” Streater said.
Yet other families in the same situation may not be so lucky, she said.
Having to take time out to care for her daughters has definitely affected her ability to work.
“My career is definitely not where I envisioned it when I was 25 years old,” Streater said. “I know at the end I have two beautiful healthy daughters that I would do anything for.”
Streater said she and her husband teach their daughters, now ages 7 and 5, that no one has the ability to take away the choices available to them.
The same should go for parents who need time to care for their children, she said.
‘A huge step’
Megan Hebdon, 37, was still a new mother when her 1-year-old daughter started having health problems.
Violent seizures led to a hospital stay and multiple follow-up doctors’ appointments.
Since then, Hebdon’s daughter, now 11, has had periods over the years when she is well and seizure-free, and others when she’s been in and out of the hospital every month. Three years ago, she almost died.
The health problems have not only taken an emotional toll on the family, who resides in the Austin area, but also a financial one.
Early on, Hebdon, who worked as a nurse practitioner in a clinic, was able to take unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
“It was a huge financial burden for our family,” Hebdon said.
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At the time, she had to decide between knowing their child was properly cared for and bringing in income for the family. “It’s a hard choice,” Hebdon said.
The ups and downs of her daughter’s health also show up on Hebdon’s resume.
Despite being a self-described “yes person,” challenges inevitably cropped up that forced Hebdon to choose between family and work, particularly when employers showed a lack of flexibility.
“If you looked at my work history, you would probably just think I am an unreliable person,” Hebdon said.
If a national paid leave policy is put in place, Hebdon said she will feel relieved, not only for her family, but other parents who also struggle with employment, finances and caregiving. The Covid-19 pandemic has only added more layers to those difficulties, she said.
“I still think there are other ways we need to change our social environment to support people with chronic illness or caregivers, but I think it’s an important step, a huge step,” Hebdon said.