Pay close attention to the paid family leave campaign

The nation’s capital is currently debating legislation that would provide paid family and medical leave for all of its residents and employees. And, no, I do not mean the U.S. Congress, but the D.C. Council—the local government that services the residents of the District of Columbia. But if this legislation passes in the D.C. Council, it will inevitably have to be approved by Congress.

The Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015 is a groundbreaking proposal because it sets a new standard of 16 weeks of paid leave for any resident to welcome a new child, care for a sick or elderly relative, or recover from a serious illness or injury. This is different than the three states with family leave policies already on the books—Rhode Island, California and New Jersey—which provide their working residents with shorter family leaves, and longer leaves for personal medical issues.

The D.C. campaign began a little over a year ago and is spearheaded by Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), an organization self-described as “the progressive voice within the Jewish community, and the Jewish voice within the progressive community.” I began volunteering with JUFJ on the campaign this past summer, taking part in lobby days at the D.C. Council, live-tweeting D.C. Council hearings on the issue, getting businesses signed onto the business coalition (shout out to Angelico La Pizzeria!) and doing outreach to the D.C. Muslim community. The JUFJ campaign manager, another JUFJ community organizer, and I will also be facilitating a session on faith-based interfaith advocacy at the Interfaith Leadership Summit.

Paid Family and Medical Leave is an issue that hits close to home. When my son was born last year, I was working at a small non-profit in D.C. where I did not have access to paid or unpaid maternity leave. My boss was very flexible and understanding and was willing to hold my position, but to go weeks or months without pay, and then to need to pay for childcare for my son immediately on returning to work, would have been neither sustainable nor affordable. I was left with the tough call to quit my job and stay home with my son for the foreseeable future. I am grateful that I was able to be with my son full-time throughout the first year of his life—so much shukr—but not working has been a financial burden. I knew I would need to return to work in 2016 to help pay our bills and my student loans. I will soon be working again and generating income to provide for my family, but I can’t help but wonder whether I would’ve returned to work much sooner had I had access to that initial safety net of up to 16 weeks paid leave.

I am also grateful that I had a normal labor and delivery without complications and a healthy baby boy, but even so, the first few months with a healthy baby are filled with back-to-back check-ups and doctor appointments, immunizations, and a bureaucratic whirlwind claims and forms—adding your baby to your insurance policy, applying for his social security number, applying perhaps for an ID, and even getting him a passport to visit family overseas. Calculated in total, my son and I went to the doctors nine times in the first 16 weeks after he was born. Eight of them were routine post-natal appointments—seven of them with the pediatrician and one with my OB/GYN. I would have missed so much work if I was working during that time, and for families who can’t afford to lose even a day of pay, those appointments just don’t happen.

I can see how difficult it is for so many working mothers and fathers to make it to all of these critical appointments that monitor the newborn’s health and development and provide life-saving vaccinations. These early steps are just some of the ways that so many vulnerable children in our communities and cities can’t get a good start on life when their parents are already struggling.

Additionally, the doctor who delivered my son advised me that it would take six weeks for my body to fully recover and heal from a vaginal birth. But let me tell you, that is the absolute bare minimum—and it takes at least eight weeks to recover from the major surgery of a Cesarean delivery. I remember talking to a young woman last fall who was smiling while asking about my son as she cashiered at a local store. She said it was so nice to see my baby because she missed hers so much. I asked her how old her baby was, and was floored when she told me he was only four weeks old. I wish I had done a better job at hiding my shock, and pray that it didn’t come off as judgmental. I really felt for this young mom, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must’ve been to leave him so soon. But I know that she felt she didn’t have a choice. I also couldn’t imagine how she could stand for prolonged periods of time that soon after having given birth!

This is why this legislation is so important for D.C. It would establish a public program of 16 weeks of paid leave, which would take the burden off employers who can’t afford to pay an employee’s leave out of pocket. Eligible D.C. employers and D.C. residents would pay a small amount—1% or less—of payroll or personal income into a self-sustaining, District-operated fund that then enables anyone who lives or works in D.C. (even if they live elsewhere) to receive a portion of their paycheck when taking leave.

It’s easy to make this a maternity and paternity leave issue, but it is also an elderly issue, a sick person issue, an injured person issue, an adoption issue, even a military deployment issue.

The Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015 would help D.C. residents and employees avoid having to make difficult choices like fully recovering from birth and bonding with a newborn versus having to make ends meet, or between caring for an aging parent versus having to institutionalize them, or between working through your latest round of chemo versus going home to sleep it off. These are unfair and frankly cruel choices, and it keeps residents and employees from thriving (for some, surviving) and fully contributing to the D.C. economy and workforce. It also keeps them from staying and putting down roots in a city with the rep of being one of the most expensive and transient in the country. I love D.C. and came here for undergrad and the career environment, and I’ve since stayed to get married, start a family and support my husband opening a small business. Young adults with a similar story will be incentivized by such policies to stay and join the tens of thousands of families who already have.

 

A condensed version of this article will be used during Kristin Garrity Sekerci’s testimony before the D.C. Council for an upcoming Community Hearing. Please visit paidfamilyleave.org to get more involved or contact the author by email at kristin.g.sekerci@gmail.com.

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