When my husband and I decided to start a family, the first thought we had was whether we could afford to take time off without pay to care for a newborn. This made me angry. No, furious! Yes, we were concerned about difficulties we might have getting pregnant, about whether or not we would miscarry, and we were anxious about delivery complications and other unknowns. But underlying all of the uncertainty was the stress of our finances. And even though we both had good, decent paying jobs, we still had to consider whether we could afford to take time off. Did our employers offer paid leave? Would they allow time off without pay? Could we afford to pay our bills on one paycheck? What if I or the baby experienced complications that required even more time off?
I was a federal employee when I became pregnant and was surprised to learn that the federal government does not provide its employees paid family leave. It does follow provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but no paid leave. We plunged ahead knowing we were up against the clock juggling age, careers, and a desire to have more than one child. We tried every way to figure out an affordable option, but concluded we couldn’t afford to take time off without pay.
Saved up sick and vacation days
So I hoarded my sick and vacation days, working every day, praying I wouldn’t get sick. My job allowed me to store the overtime accrued during overseas travel so I took on more overseas work. I developed a spreadsheet to calculate the leave I collected over two years. My planning, and travel into my second trimester, allowed me to eke out 12 weeks of paid leave. Ironically, my husband’s employer had just adopted a policy granting three weeks of paid family leave for full-time employees. We could pay rent, he could help me recover, and we could both bond with our son. The process was exhausting, but we knew we were luckier than most.
While the FMLA allows for unpaid leave, most families cannot afford to take time off without pay. Indeed, almost 80 percent of families live paycheck-to-paycheck. Further, only 59 percent of families are eligible for FMLA as the law only applies to employees working more than 1,250 hours in the previous year at companies with 50+ employees. The result is shocking: 1 in 4 women return to work just 10 days after giving birth. It is unimaginable!
Does it really need to be this hard? In most countries, it isn’t hard at all. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world that does not have paid family leave. Canada (where my husband is from) established paid maternal leave in 1971 and extended paid leave to both parents in 1990. Minnesota has been a leader in family-friendly policies (extended eligibility for job-protected leave, nursing mothers’ workplace rights, pregnant worker accommodations), which is why we chose to move here from Georgia. Minnesota now has the opportunity to be one of the leaders when it comes to paid family leave with the proposed Paid Family and Medical Leave Act (HF5), which would make Minnesota the seventh state with a paid family leave policy.
Heart-wrenching struggles shared
As a student of public health policy at the University of Minnesota, School of Public Health, I listened to every minute of every hearing held on HF5 during the last legislative session. The struggles of so many Minnesota families who testified for the bill were heart wrenching, the many small businesses who supported the bill and their employees’ families were inspiring, but the way opposition legislators manipulated the issue and minimized the struggles of families was infuriating.
Now even Target has moved to offer paid family leave, yet the Legislature failed to pass it for everyone. The financial hardship of starting a family is real, especially for my generation. We were just hitting career age during the Great Recession, needed more education to attain the same career level as our parents, are buried in student loan debt and housing shortages and rising rents, and trying to start a family in the middle of it all. Paid family leave isn’t a benefit; it’s a necessity.
Starting a family is hard, but it shouldn’t be this hard. The private sector can and should continue to take the lead in providing paid family leave. Government should follow suit, ensuring the same for all Minnesotans.
Julia Interrante is a Ph.D. student in Health Services Research, Policy & Administration at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on reproductive health policies and their effect on maternal and child health outcomes.
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