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Erica Carley Harris works for an educational nonprofit and resides in Brunswick with her husband and two children.
Two years ago, while seven months pregnant, I testified at the State House in favor of a bill that would establish a paid family and medical leave program in Maine. I spoke about how differently I was approaching my leave, my second time around, since my employer had implemented a much more generous paid leave policy than when I had my daughter in 2016.
It was important to share that my workplace knew that in order to attract and retain quality employees, a comprehensive paid family leave policy was not just good values, it was good for business. Little did I know then exactly how crucial that change would end up being.
Like many families, we did our best to prepare for each of our children. We did the things you may traditionally think of, like researching pediatricians and day cares. We also weighed the decision of when and how to expand our family in the context of paying for two full-time spots in childcare.
However, we also tried (unsuccessfully, both times) to have a child in the exact week in March when, barring unusual snow days, I would be coming off of my 12-week FMLA just as my husband, a teacher, would be starting summer break. We pored over our employers’ leave policies and cobbled together short term disability, vacation days, sick days and unpaid leave. This is what passes for family leave in America.
Welcoming a new baby should not be considered a disability or a vacation, but as long as the United States retains its position as the only industrialized country in the entire world without a paid family and medical leave program, that is how many employers account for that time.
So with our planning, a healthy pregnancy and a newly minted family leave policy through my employer, I advocated wholeheartedly for a statewide change in policy, focusing on Maine’s workforce challenges. I believed then, and still do, that paid family leave makes a business stronger.
And then, just a couple months later, I suffered a rare and life-threatening complication that led to emergency surgery an hour after my son was placed in my arms. I lost over a liter of blood, leading to a level of exhaustion — combined with the struggles of newborn care and PTSD from the birth — that left me unable to do much of anything other than lie on my couch and attempt to breastfeed.
My midwives told me to expect my recovery to take six to eight weeks. It was closer to 10 before I was able to get back to a regular activity level. Without the paid family and medical leave, I would have been forced to face significant financial hardship or go back to work when it would have been against any medical advice to do so.
This year, while speaking in support of LD 1559, paid family and medical leave legislation from Sen. Mattie Daughtry of Brunswick, my testimony was different. I wanted committee members to hear about the very real and unpredictable health issues that can strike at any time and to understand that having a family shouldn’t bankrupt you.
Without a statewide policy, too many people are forced to choose between their physical and mental health and their jobs.
As a result of COVID-19, these health and economic emergencies are now a shared experience. It’s time to consider paid family and medical leave the essential infrastructure it is in most of the world.
The bill establishes a commission to study and propose a comprehensive program, unique to Maine’s needs and demographics. The commission will hear from workers, employers, caregivers and experts, and will propose a system to support all workers, families and employers in Maine.
A quality, comprehensive paid family leave program will level the playing field and give everyone the ability to care for themselves and those closest without fear of financial ruin.
It will allow businesses to offer a benefit that helps retain employees, increases productivity and loyalty, while also allowing small businesses to compete more fairly with big companies.
And, it’s simply the right thing to do.