I had just earned an “Employee of the Month” award for all of my hard work and dedication. I was a model employee, and I assumed my efforts would be rewarded with understanding when I needed something from my employer. I was dead wrong.
It was a decade ago, and I was in desperate need of exactly the kinds of provisions that just became law in the New York, where a sweeping new paid parental and family leave program is the most comprehensive in the nation and expected to set a huge precedent for other states.
My then-fiancé’s mother had been sick for a few months, and we noticed she wasn’t exactly herself at Christmas, but we didn’t think too much of it until she was rushed to the hospital not long after. Every night after work, we navigated rush-hour traffic to get to the hospital, eating dinner in the family break room as each of his siblings took turns visiting their mother. Doctors talked about her prognosis, and her daughters tried to keep their spirits up, but it was clear to me that this strong matriarch, who raised nine children alone after her husband’s death, had reached the end of her time with us.
My fiancé was no stranger to death. When he got home from school one day in his teens, he was greeted by the news that his father had taken a nap and would never wake up. His oldest sister told me he didn’t come out of his bedroom for a month, listening to heavy metal music and processing his grief as only a teenage boy can.
When his mother got sick, he wouldn’t talk to me about it. He closeted himself alone in his office after we got home from the hospital, and I could tell that he was teetering on the brink. I knew he needed me, so I went to my employer and asked to work flexible hours for a few weeks. I didn’t ask to take leave, just to leave work a little early each day to spend more time with my fiancé and his family at the hospital, and I planned to finish my work when I got home each night.
At the time, I was a technical writer for an international cellular provider, and working at home was just another part of my life. I logged in to work from my family vacations and on weekends to make sure fires were put out.
My manager told me the company didn’t offer flex hours, and because we weren’t married yet, my fiancé didn’t quality under the provisions of FMLA, which would have only provided me with unpaid leave anyway. When I asked to take unpaid leave outside of FMLA, they denied my request. They weren’t willing to offer me any flexibility whatsoever as my future mother-in-law spent her last few weeks in the hospital, and I did the only thing I thought I could do — I quit.
I never told my fiancé I quit. I told him they fired me over something or another, but the truth was that I knew my family needed me more than my employer, and I didn’t want to work for a company that cared so little about me while demanding that I routinely put my life on hold for them. His mother died two weeks later with her son by her side, as I waited in the waiting room. When he walked out of the room, he sobbed like I had never seen anyone sob, and walked straight into my arms, and I know it mattered that I was there.
I was lucky that quitting was an option for me. Only a few years prior, I had been a struggling single mother living on the brink of poverty. The only reason I had the opportunity to quit that job to spend time with my fiancé and his dying mother was because we were living together, and I knew his salary would cover us for a month or two. After his mother’s death, I quickly found a new job, and that time I made sure to join a company that offered comprehensive paid parental and family leave programs.
A few years later, my younger daughters, twins, were born premature. We were each given 12 weeks of paid parental leave by our employer, which we used to be by their sides in the neonatal intensive care unit until they came home six weeks later. By combining my parental leave with sick and vacation time, I was able to spend nearly five months at home with my daughters while receiving full pay, and I never lost sight of the care my employer extended to my family when we needed it.
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At that time, my company was one of the only ones in the nation that offered such generous leave programs. Even though they benefited me tremendously, I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to be on the other side. The ability to care for our loved ones, whether in birth or in death, shouldn’t depend on our employer. It’s a basic human right, and it’s about time that we began treating it as such. New York’s programs are a step in the right direction, but it’s time to implement paid parental and family leave on a national scale.
Squeezed into the last day of the legislative session, the new program mandates up to 12 weeks paid family leave to care for a new child (whether biological, adopted or a foster child), or to care for an ill parent, spouse, domestic partner, child or family member. The leave will cover both men and women, allowing new fathers to take off just as much time as new mothers, and it will guarantee employees their jobs when they return to work. It also does away with many of Family and Medical Leave Act’s (FMLA) loopholes and is funded by $1 per week employee contributions, rather than being employer funded.