Amanda Baez is a surgical technologist, her husband is a teacher and their second child was born in June. In the middle of the pandemic, being able to stay home with the baby as long as possible is critical to their child’s health.
It’s also a critical financial question for the young family. Because of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, Baez’ employer must grant her up to 12 weeks off. But the hospital doesn’t have to pay her for any of that time. To make matters worse, she found out that her employer will deduct extra money from her paychecks when she returns, in order to repay the cost of her share of benefits during her unpaid weeks off.
“That was the biggest letdown,” she said.
Baez said her employer’s reasoning was that the deductions would make up for the benefits she would receive during her time off. “They’re still going to pay their portion of my benefits, and I’m not making a paycheck [from which they could] deduct my portion,” she said.
Before that meeting, Baez had already begun to prepare herself for the financial burden to come.
“I knew that I didn’t have any [paid] maternity leave and I knew that I needed to save my PTO,” she said. “I also knew that that meant we needed to start saving immediately so that I could take some time off.”
So Baez kept working, pregnant, in a hospital crowded with COVID-19 patients. Trying to describe the experience, she had to stop talking, overcome. “Traumatic,” was the only word she could muster.
A Texas member of Congress is helping lead the attempt to change the rules on parental leave, for fathers as well as mothers. U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, knows about the value of paid time off for new parents. He made headlines in 2019 as the first member of Congress known to take paid paternity leave.
“I’ve talked a lot about paternity leave because there’s a stigma still associated in our society around men taking time to be with their kids, particularly the early years of their [kids’] lives,” he told The Texas Tribune. The congressman took his second leave in late March of this year.
Allred, who already offers his staffers paid leave, believes that should extend to every parent in the country. It’s a key question for Texas’ lowest paid workers, most of them people of color and most of whom literally cannot afford to take substantial time off without pay when a baby is born.
“You know, it’s hourly and lower-wage workers who have always been the most exploited,” Allred said. “And we have a disproportionate number here in Texas who have not had access to this, and that’s the folks that we need to help.”
A 2021 report from the National Partnership for Women and Families found that 61% of working people in the state have not been able to take time off under the FMLA. Among families of color in Texas, many key breadwinners are women of color — 76% of Black mothers, 64% of Native American mothers and 46% of Latina mothers.
What makes the FMLA inaccessible for many Texans is its tight eligibility requirements, as Jessica Mason, a senior policy analyst at National Partnership and author of the report, explained. Private employers with fewer than 50 employees, for example, are not required to provide their employees with family leave under FMLA.
“If you have a state that has a lot of small businesses, that’s going to mean fewer people are covered by FMLA,” Mason said. “The second half of that inaccessibility is the fact that FMLA leave is unpaid, and a lot of us could not afford to take 12 weeks of unpaid time off from work without falling into poverty.” If workers do take time off without pay, as Baez found out, they are still responsible for paying their own portion of insurance premiums, according to a union leader and an FMLA fact sheet.
Paid family leave, like paid sick leave, has long been a goal of labor unions and parental rights activists in Texas and many other states across the country. Like many other union leaders, Jeff Rotkoff, campaigns director for the Texas AFL-CIO, supports a fair, paid family leave policy. The only way to get it, according to activists and parents like Baez, is through effective legislation — whether on a state or federal level.
Rotkoff spent a lot of time campaigning for paid sick leave at the municipal level. In the last few years, major Texas cities such as Austin, Dallas and San Antonio passed ordinances mandating paid sick leave, but they were struck down as unconstitutional. Rotkoff said the ordinances were widely popular with voters, garnering “hundreds of thousands of signatures of registered voters in Dallas and San Antonio.”
The lawsuits that resulted in the ordinances being invalidated were filed by business organizations, Rotkoff noted. But he also found, he said, “that a lot of small businesses like these policies, because they level the playing field.”
“It’s hundreds of thousands of Texas workers who don’t have access to paid sick time, and all of those workers are going to have some version of a story like that — where they or someone they love falls ill short-term or long-term, and they have no protection under the law, they may not have a contract at work,” Rotkoff added.
The business lobby has begun to rethink its stance on a federal paid family leave policy, which it had long opposed. In a September 2020 statement, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce told the U.S. Department of Labor that if paid family leave is mandated by federal law, it should allow employers the ability to opt in and maintain their own policies.
The chamber, which represents over 3 million business organizations, also recommended that any future federal programs “set an employer coverage threshold that is friendly to small businesses.”
In the past, Allred has co-sponsored legislation to financially support Americans in their first year of parenthood. He made a rare visit to a Trump-led White House in an attempt to convince then-President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, that the bill was vital.
He went, Allred said, because the parental leave issue “has the potential to be bipartisan.”
“But whether it is or not, I think that most Americans have already arrived at the decision or realization that this is something that we need,” he added.
However, that legislation stalled, and the Dallas Democrat is now pinning his hopes on President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan.
According to a White House Fact Sheet, one of the proposals in that plan calls for the cost of the FMLA to be completely paid via tax cuts. The $225 billion program would provide workers up to $4,000 per month of leave pay, which would replace at least two-thirds of average weekly wages and up to 80 percent of weekly pay for the lowest-wage workers. However, the program would be implemented gradually, meaning parents could have to wait as long as a decade to reap its benefits.
A 2020 report from the U.S. Department of Labor found that 95% of the lowest-paid workers in the country have zero access to paid family leave, and the majority of that demographic are women and people of color.
The National Partnership for Women and Families also points to a national paid leave policy as the solution.
With a federal paid family leave policy, their report says, the chances of working families in Texas facing economic insecurity could decrease by 79%.
If families are just getting by financially, they often fall into poverty when there’s a pregnancy because at least one parent has to take some unpaid time off. “A national paid family medical leave program would really slash the number of families who would fall into economic insecurity if they had to take leave unpaid,” Mason said.
While Baez’s husband was able to take his two weeks of paternity leave, not all educators can.
Sydney Lynch, a Houston educator, gave birth in February. She was several months into her pregnancy before she realized her maternal leave would be unpaid. Both Lynch and her husband took their unpaid time off. Lynch had 12 weeks through the FMLA, and her husband had eight weeks off from his job.
“Finding out it was unpaid was a bit of a shock for me and for him both,” she said.
Luckily, her time off coincided with the end of the school year, allowing her to stay home with her son throughout the summer. But with the school year approaching and the FMLA period having reached its end, Lynch reluctantly put her 6-month-old in day care.
It feels like dropping her son off “at the door to strangers,” she said. “I know he will be taken care of, but it’s still a lot to process and to think about.”
Baez and her husband had support from many family members when their first child was born a few years ago. But since then, many of their family members have moved out of state, leaving the couple to take on this second birth alone.
“If there is any kind of family emergency, or financial emergency, I’m going to have to go back to work sooner,” she added, which in itself could put the baby at risk.
“I’m going to be going back to work in a hospital, and my husband’s going back to work in a school where masks are no longer going to be required,” Baez said. “I want to try to keep my baby home as long as I can before exposing them.”