At Father’s Day, I am reminded of the hot August day two years ago when my wife and I welcomed our son into the world three weeks before his due date. After hurrying up, however, my son apparently concluded this whole “being born” thing deserved a second thought. The 48-hour delivery is something my wife promises to never let him forget when he’s a rebellious teenager.
Between the three-week premature birth and the marathon delivery, both mom and baby needed focused care in the hospital as well as when we returned home. My son barely registered on the growth charts, clocking in at the 8th percentile in length and the 5th in weight.
Unlike many working families in North Carolina, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to take the time we needed for my wife to recover and to welcome our new son into the family. As my wife slowly healed and learned to breastfeed, I served as caregiver to her and my son during the crucially important first few weeks of our son’s life.
While my wife’s part-time job did not provide paid maternity leave, my employer, a nonprofit advocacy organization, provided me with six weeks paid parental leave. Combined with the six weeks paid annual leave, this gave me an incredibly generous – and necessary – 12 weeks of paid time off that allowed me to care for my family without sacrificing our financial security.
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Twenty-three years ago, President Bill Clinton signed into law the landmark Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees certain workers up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to welcome the birth or adoption of a new child, or to provide extended medical care to immediate family members.
The FMLA doesn’t go far enough. First, it applies to too few workers – just 60 percent of the nation’s workforce can take family medical leave without fear of losing their jobs. But most importantly, FMLA guarantees only unpaid leave. Only 12 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave through their employers, and less than 40 percent have personal medical leave through an employer-provided temporary disability program.
Almost everyone in North Carolina at some point will need to provide or receive extended care – to welcome a new baby, recover from childbirth or provide medical care to a sick parent or grandparent. But too many workers have to choose between the impossible: caring for their families and the paycheck that allows them to buy groceries and keep a roof over their heads.
It is a national scandal that so many families have to make this impossible choice. New mothers return to work just a few days after experiencing childbirth so their children can eat, or adult children have to choose between their jobs and providing the care their ill and aging parents need. Adding to the scandal is the fact that the United States is one of the only industrialized countries in the world not to provide some kind of paid family and medical leave.
We can fix this problem and give new dads the same chance I had. The North Carolina General Assembly can create a simple and business-friendly Family and Medical Leave Insurance program. In exchange for paying a premium of less than $5 a week, workers would receive an insurance payout that replaces a significant portion of their wages for up to 12 weeks for qualified events.
I am able to be a better husband and father because I was able take paid time off to care for my own family, and my wife and son are healthier than they would have been if we had been forced to choose my income over their physical well-being. As we celebrate Father’s Day, let’s make sure everyone else in North Carolina has the same opportunity.
Allan Freyer is director of the Workers’ Rights Project at the NC Justice Center.