Let’s Be Honest… FMLA Sucks, Time for FAMILY Act
Before I start, I want to get something out of the way… I’m a married heterosexual woman. I own my own home, I have two graduate degrees. I work full-time and have benefits like sick days. I have a supportive husband and I have a lot of family around to help me. I have a support system. I recognize that not everyone does, and I’m privileged in many ways… which is what makes these observations so necessary… because if a person that has a pretty good life can feel the way I have been feeling— I can’t imagine what a person that hasn’t been awarded these privileges must go through.
I’m entering the last weeks of my pregnancy. I’m 35 years old and at the time of writing this I’m 35 weeks pregnant. A week ago I had a meeting with HR where they gently reminded me that I could take 6 weeks for a “normal” delivery and 8 weeks if it was a caesarean birth…. with a faint smile the HR professional said “unfortunately that will be unpaid.”
(I’m thinking to myself, “Yes I know that. I did my homework.”)
She continues to say that I can extend my leave to 12 weeks under FMLA “unfortunately that will be unpaid as well.”
At each minute, I was reminded of just how much FMLA sucks and how behind the curve the United States is in terms of offering family leave to parents when compared to, well, pretty much the rest of the world.
So What is FMLA?
“FMLA” = the federal law enacted in 1993 called the Family and Medical Leave Act. FMLA guarantees certain employees up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave each year with no threat of job loss.
FMLA requires that employers covered by the law maintain the health benefits for eligible workers just as if they were working. (Note: This means that you need to factor into your economic plan that you will be receiving a bill from your employer for the monthly portion you are responsible for… that’s right. Not only do you not get paid, you get a bill as well.
With every phrase that came out of her mouth I pictured myself having an an outburst and saying “Are you effin kidding me?”
The HR representative also informed me that during the first 6 weeks I was out (for a normal delivery) or 8 weeks (for a c-section) I would qualify for short-term disability. I am not sure what is more outraging: the fact that childbirth, i.e. the continuation of the human race, is considered a disability, or the fact that I am eligible for $170 a week (minus taxes) as disability pay. Because that gets me SO far in New York City (or anywhere else for that matter).
So I left that meeting feeling pissed, pissed at the laws and if I’m being quite frank, pissed at my employer. Because paying for six weeks of family leave is considered a perk reserved for shall we say “higher tier” workers, such as administrators, not “office or clerical workers”? So yes, in other words, the employees that probably already make more money have access to things like paid family leave as part of the “perks” or “benefits” offered to them. But not clerical workers, you know the ones that are probably being overworked, and who probably run the offices upper tier managers and administrators don’t know how to run. Sorry that’s me venting and digressing… where was I?
You reading may be sympathetic to what I’m going through and how I feel. You may even be one of the many woman going through this.
However, some of you may be thinking “Well why the hell is she having a baby then?” And YOU are the problem. It’s this “American” ideal of individualism and every (wo)man for him(her)self that is the problem. It’s the reason why there is no paid leave afforded to new parents in this country. It’s the reason why paid leave is considered a perk for higher end employees, instead of a right of every worker.
It’s the reason why every other developed country (and most developing too) has a paid leave law while we don’t. This “every (wo)man for (her)himself attitude is the reason why there are no federal laws that protect parents-to-be in the United States.
And for the record (it has to be said) we are no irresponsible people. We did our homework. We knew what this would mean. We’ve been saving for this unpaid maternity leave for about a year, there are spreadsheets involved and all sorts of on the side jobs like translating, writing and consulting. We are not looking for “free” stuff. I won’t qualify for any government assistance while I am on unpaid leave, not even WIC.
We would simply like a way (which is afforded to so many parents in other countries) to become parents and bring children into the world that don’t equal toxic stress over how we are going to pay for our mortgage or afterschool or groceries, all while companies and organizations don’t provide paid leave but can give huge bonuses and perks to their top employees.
Companies find all sorts of ways to put mothers between a rock and a hard place. Did you know that FMLA runs “concurrent” with sick and vacation time? That means that (since FMLA is unpaid) you take all your sick days and vacation days first, so they pay that out, and the rest is unpaid. …
That also means that when you come back to work, either at 6 weeks or 12 weeks or longer if you are “LUCKY”, you start the counter at ZERO again. So God forbid your child gets sick, or you become ill, you have to get your ass to work because you have no paid time left… or you can stay home and not be paid (but probably risk losing your job).
And while I have the privilege to stay home if I don’t feel well, that comes with its set of issues… for the last week I have been walking around feeling all sorts of pain in my body and every morning I wake up thinking “I wish I could stay home… and then I think that if I do- I will have to take an unpaid day because I’m saving up all my sick days for my maternity leave… so I do what many moms do every day, all across the United States (where only 12 percent of moms in the private sector have access to paid leave) I get up and go… I walk slower, having identified all the escalators and elevators on my MTA commute. But pregnant moms don’t only suffer from back pain or leg pain, pregnant moms’ immmune systems are also more fragile… so now I’m sick as a dog and still telling myself that I need to make it two more weeks until I go on leave. (but who am I kidding? I have been in bed for almost three days straight).
Good news for Parents in New York!
Thankfully, April 2016 marked the signing of Paid Family Leave in New York. As of January 2018 women and men in New York State will have access to paid family leave. As I tweeted a few weeks ago, while I won’t benefit from it, I’m thrilled that in the future parents will not have to deal with the toxic stress of trying to push your body to work through the discomfort, pain and sickness to get a paycheck or to get more time with your baby.
My hope is that one day every parent in the United States will have that fortune.
FMLA is outdated and needs to be updated to match today’s workforce needs. The truth is that almost 75 percent of women are in the workforce and fathers want to be part of their babies’ lives.
Goodbye FMLA, Hello FAMILY ACT.
We need a national paid leave program, like the FAMILY Act introduced by NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
Senator Gillibrand is committed to bringing paid leave to families in the United States. Last year I was lucky to be part of a roundtable discussion with Sen. Gillibrand and other activists like Dina Bakst from A Better Balance and Donna Dolan from dedicated to making paid leave a reality.
Senator Gillibrand is committed to making the FAMILY Act a reality:
It’s imperative that we make paid family and medical leave available to every worker in our country. To make this a reality, I introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act or the FAMILY Act, which:
Establishes a self-sustaining national insurance fund paid for through employee and employer contributions of two-tenths of one percent of a worker’s wages- about $2.00 per week for a typical worker.
Provides eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of paid leave with 66 percent wage replacement for a personal or family member’s medical emergency, including those arising from service members’ deployment, or to care for a newborn or adopted baby.
Is gender and age neutral, and covers workers–young and elderly, single and married, men and women, working part time or full time in all companies, no matter their size.
The truth is Paid Leave should be a no brainer.
It’s time to make it a reality.