Before getting into teaching, Shalonda Ravenell never considered the issue of paid time off or maternity leave.
“As a teacher, the job that you do, you don’t get paid what you’re worth, so you would think that there’s sick leave somewhere for you when you have babies,” said Shalonda, a married mother of two and a business education teacher at a public high school in Florida. “But you don’t get six weeks’ worth of pay [for maternity leave] if you don’t have that time saved up,” she told me.
Shalonda isn’t alone. With no federal right to paid sick leave, maternity leave, or paternity leave in the United States, it’s up to the state or the employer to determine how many paid sick days employees are provided.
And although the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), signed into law by President Clinton, provides needed job protection for people to take time off after children are born, many people can’t afford to take unpaid time away from work, and some are not covered at all.
“We have 10 [paid] days for the year that you can take off,” Shalonda continued, “so you pray to God that you don’t have a complication, or you don’t have a C-section and need eight weeks.”
With her first child, Shalonda knew that she wanted to take as much time off as possible, even though she knew she would not be paid for days beyond the sick days she’d saved up from previous years.Shalonda thought she had saved up enough paid sick leave to take off six weeks for the baby, but she hadn’t accounted for all of the doctor’s appointments she would have to go to. She had to take two of the six weeks off without pay, leaving her and her husband, Brian, uncertain how they would pay their bills.
“I didn’t pay stuff, some of the bills, and was just stressed,” she said. “You’re supposed to be happy, rejoicing with your family, but you’re stressed, because you’re trying to take care of your family.”
Many people in Congress and across the nation would agree, which is why Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) introduced the Healthy Families Act last week, which would guarantee every American paid sick days for personal illnesses, preventive care, or to provide care to a sick family member.
This follows less than a month after President Obama’s State of the Union announcement in which he called for policies such as paid sick days and paid family leave. Last Congress, Representative Rosa DeLauro and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would provide working Americans with up to 12 weeks of partial income when they need to take time off for a serious health condition including childbirth.
When Shalonda and Brian decided to have another child, they had to plan far ahead. Shalonda saved up six years’ worth of sick days between her two children. By the time she became pregnant with her second daughter, Shalonda had accrued 60 days of paid leave.
They faced challenges, however, when Shalonda had to have a C-section and her husband Brian needed to stay home and help. “You don’t get paid for it unless you have sick time,” Shalonda said. “FMLA just helped us keep our jobs.”
Without paid maternity leave and adequate paid sick leave, many families are forced to spend their sick days all at once, as Shalonda and her husband did when their children were born. But once they run out and they or their children get sick, they are out of luck.
“Thankfully, we had people who had our backs and would be like— we know you don’t have family here, so we’ll help you. That’s when your community becomes your family.”
Unfortunately, many other families aren’t lucky enough to have such a strong support system, and with the average child under the age of four getting sick six to eight times a year, moms and dads are often left with nowhere to turn.
Shalonda believes that with different priorities, employers could afford to allow people, especially those who have been working for a long time, to have paid sick leave. She stated, “If the people at the top that make the most money would take some of the money from their paychecks, then they could help the people who work for them.”
She also supports making policy that insures that people who have been on the job for some time have guaranteed paid sick leave “so there’s some commitment, some type of give back—not just that you get to keep your job.”
With policy solutions like the proposed FAMILY Act and the Healthy Families Act proposed last week in Congress, we could ensure that all working Americans are able to take care of themselves and their families without facing financial repercussions.
If you would like to support the Healthy Families Act that would give all Americans access to the paid sick leave they deserve, click here to read and sign a letter of support.
Tamika Middleton is a Writing Fellow at the Center for Community Change.