By Rob Thompson, Senior Policy and Communications Advisor
“You’re not leaving the hospital until you have the baby,” were the doctor’s first words after confirming that my wife’s water had broken a full eight weeks before our due date.
Just an hour earlier, we were on our way to our first birthing class. When the doctor gave us the news that Henry was going to be born at least six weeks early, we were scared and overwhelmed. We were worried about the health and safety of our baby and we were entirely unprepared personally and professionally for my wife’s extended bed rest and the early arrival of our child.
We soon learned that health risks for Henry were minimal, particularly under the supervision of WakeMed’s incredible neonatal unit. In fact, he was born with healthy lungs and at a weight typical of a full-term baby. Henry is now a wild and adorable 17-month old who shows no signs of his prematurity.
But we still had to manage the impact of his unexpected arrival in other ways, particularly on our careers. Both of our employers, one a large university and the other a small (but mighty!) non-profit, had robust paid leave policies in place and worked with us to accommodate Henry’s early arrival. It’s impossible to overstate how important this was for us, both in terms of maintaining our financial stability and minimizing stress in a stressful situation.
For our family, the importance of paid leave stretched beyond managing our son’s premature birth. After my wife and I returned to work, Henry began attending a childcare center where he proceeded to get sick every couple of weeks. For Henry, likely because of his prematurity, regular colds frequently turned into bronchiolitis, a lower lung infection that can be dangerous for babies. Because we had jobs with paid leave, we were able to care for Henry during his frequent sicknesses. We didn’t have to choose between lost wages (or a lost job) and what was best for our family.
Lastly, as a father, paid leave has allowed me to be the parent and partner that I strive to be. From the beginning, my wife and I have been able to share responsibility for caring for Henry, from taking leave after his birth to staying home with him when he’s sick. This equal partnership has allowed both of us to pursue our careers while cultivating a strong bond with our boy.
Unfortunately, many North Carolinians have jobs that don’t provide personal medical leave or even minimal paid sick days. 1.46 million private-sector workers in North Carolina are not entitled to any earned paid sick leave. That’s 44.7 percent of the private-sector workforce that must give up needed wages and possibly risk their jobs so they can care for their own health needs or the health needs of family members.
The Federal Family Medical Leave Act provides job protections for workers to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid time to care for themselves or a family member, but it only applies to large employers. Even then, many North Carolinians can’t afford to go for several weeks without a paycheck and are left with a terrible decision to make: do I continue to work so I can pay the rent and feed my family, or do I stay home care for my sick child? Quite often, doing both is not an option.
The time for additional policy intervention is at hand. We often hear politicians talk about the importance of family values. What could be a more important family value than a parent’s commitment to care for his or her child?
This Sunday is Father’s Day, an excellent time for all of us to urge North Carolina elected officials to put their money where their mouth is and make it possible for all parents to have the opportunity to care for their newborn babies or sick children while maintaining their employment and financial security. It’s the right thing to do for families, for children and for our state.