Why Workplace Leave and Flexibility Matter

Working as an advocate for low-income families at Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW), I have always been grateful for a good job, a safe home and some stability. I consider myself incredibly fortunate and am thankful every day because I know that in a moment’s notice, this all can change. Economic insecurity is just one emergency away for so many of us. A year ago I faced that emergency.

Pregnant with my first child, I knew my life was in for a big change. My husband and I consciously decided to start a family at a point in our lives when we felt stable and reasonably economically secure. I knew things would be difficult – like most new parents I worried about my ability to balance work with family responsibilities and the cost of raising a child – but I never imagined nor was I prepared for the challenge we faced. While traveling to upstate New York and nearing the end of my fifth month of pregnancy, my water broke. After being admitted into a hospital more than seven hours from home, the doctors were able to stabilize my and my baby’s condition. We suddenly found ourselves facing a life-threatening emergency with no option of returning home for an unknown amount of time.

After being admitted into the hospital, I called my boss to explain the situation. I did this without fear of losing my job. WOW made accommodations so that – per my request – I could work remotely from the hospital and allowed me to maintain a flexible schedule to accommodate the uncertainty of my situation. Fortunately, my husband received the same response from his employer and he was able to stay in Syracuse with us. With my job secure, I still had health insurance to cover the high cost of the specialized care that we would need. Our combined medical bills would total well over a half million dollars, a sum that would have bankrupted us without excellent coverage.

How much did these workplace accommodations and good health benefits mean to the economic security and emotional well being of my family? At 24 weeks gestation our son faced terrible odds – survival rates were between 50% and 70% and he would likely face moderate to severe long-term health problems. Not having to worry about my job or ability to pay the hospital bills reduced my stress, allowing me to remain strong and positive, which certainly prolonged my pregnancy and affected my son’s well being. While most women experiencing their water breaking so early into their pregnancy deliver within 48 hours, we were able to delay labor and buy him precious time. Three weeks after being admitted to the hospital my son, Henry, a tiny 2 pounds 7 ounce fighter, was born 13 weeks prematurely.

Being away from home with no option to be transferred to a local hospital due to the precariousness of Henry’s health, we were faced with many more unexpected expenses, particularly a need for temporary housing. Organizations like the Ronald McDonald House of Central New York, where we lived for three months during my son’s stay in the neonatal intensive care unit, provided us with housing and food at just a fraction of the cost we would have paid for a hotel room. Furthermore, because of Henry’s low-birth weight he was eligible to receive Social Security Insurance benefits during his hospitalization. While the process of accessing this benefit was incredibly cumbersome and frustrating, this support helped us cover the some of the additional expenses we faced being away from home.

2014 was the most difficult and heart-wrenching year of my life, but I am happy to say despite those many terrifying months and hardships, my son is now a thriving and healthy one-year-old. Unlike many others, our story had a happy ending.

I am sharing my story, not only because I am grateful, but also because this demonstrates why all families need these types of protections and supports when things go wrong. Employer flexibility and the ability to work remotely enabled me and my husband to keep our jobs and benefits with no undue hardship on our workplaces. Having health insurance meant that we were able to afford the care that saved my son’s life. Community services and safety net programs helped to provide support to us in a time of need and reduced the amount of debt we accumulated. All of these elements are critical for family economic security and without them my life might be very different today. I am incredibly fortunate to still have my job, not be crippled with debt, and most importantly that our irrepressible Henry is with us today. I don’t want our experience to be the exception, it should be the rule.

SGB and Henry

 

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