Sadly, I'm old enough to remember when Bill Clinton signed the Federal Medical Leave Act (FMLA) into law, and it was considered a legislative victory and represented progress for women's rights. Twenty plus years later, it's widely recognised that FMLA protection is rather inadequate as it only secures one's job while he or she takes twelve weeks of unpaid leave after the birth or a baby, adoption or need to care for an ill family member. Additionally, FMLA is rather restrictive as one must be a full time salaried employee for at least one year at a company with more than 50 employees in order to even qualify. It is projected that 40% of employees are not even eligible for FMLA protection. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver recently broadcast a brilliant piece on the shitty state of maternity leave in the United States, and he featured some clips from the opposition to FMLA, which sound so familiar. There were claims that it would "cost jobs" and it was a "suffocating regulation being shoved down the throats of businesses and families" (from a female Congresswoman). Tom Delay, who many will remember was indicted on charges of conspiracy to violate election laws among other dodgy allegations, claimed the bill was "unfair, invasive, anti-business, anti-growth and deathly expensive". Yet less than 10% of business expressed any negative effects about complying with FMLA mandates. California broke ground in 2002 with the introduction of a Paid Family Leave, which provides partial pay for six weeks and is financed through payroll taxes. Over 90% of California businesses report a 'positive' or 'neutral' impact of the paid leave. As John Oliver describes, "It's like having an ice hockey game on at a bar. It's not bothering anyone and some people are actually really into it."
When I first spoke with the Disability Specialist (DS), I took note that she seemed reluctant to offer any information and only replied to specific questions. It would seem that she were just lazy or incompetent, but now I appreciate that she is a very diligent employee who has probably been trained to be evasive. She wouldn't tell me how much leave I could take, only that it would depend on my eligibility, which couldn't be determined until I submitted my request. I was instructed to apply for my leave 30 days before the intended date. As my latest ultrasound had revealed that my placenta is moving and my delivery date could be pushed out, I emailed the Disability Specialist to ask if it would be better to file 30 days before the earliest possible date of my leave and then change the date as needed. She never wrote back to me and as my office manager kept asking if she should open my schedule for another week, I decided to say 'fuck it' and planned to file a week later with the hope that I would need to change the date and would create extra work for the DS. At last when it was 30 days before my intended last day, I clicked on the weblink that the DS had sent me so that I could sumbit my request online. I couldn't get passed the first page before the site crashed. Repeatedly. I tried calling the 800 number that was listed, but after waiting on hold for twenty minutes, I had to leave a message. I called again and waited for another 20 minutes to no avail. When I didn't hear back from anyone at the end of the day, I called the DS and received her voicemail. I left a pissy message indicating that I did not want to have to work past my intended stop date and did not want to have to take unpaid leave just because her department didn't have their act together.
The following Monday, I finally reached the DS. There was no mention of my prior messages or email. She took my information started the process of my leave application. Two days later, I received a formal letter from her. According to my paperwork, I was approved to take six weeks off from my delivery date. She had already slated my return to work date, which was exactly six weeks to the day from my original due date. As that date falls on a Thursday, I would be expected to return on a Friday. As in 'don't be cheek enough to think you can take one more day and restart on a Monday...' The icing on the cake? She mentioned that I could use my PTO time, but according to her records, I had zero hours of stored PTO to apply. Cue freak-out from an emotional, hormonal pregnant woman.
I just couldn't escape the feeling that I would get screwed over by the process. I am a hard working, tax paying citizen who has never had to use the system, let alone have any idea how to work or manipulate it. One of our affiliate offices hired a new doctor who was about 4 or 5 months pregnant when she started working. She only took 6 weeks off, as she wasn't eligible for California benefits since she hadn't been an employed state resident long enough. I've been a full time employed resident of California for the past 8 years and I have all the receipts to prove that I've paid my taxes. I realise that she has to put something down for my return date, and it was probably arbitrary, but it's hard to believe that when you're looking at an official looking document that also states how you can be penalised if you don't return to work on your anticipated date. Still it felt insulting. As if this was all the time I was allowed to take, six measly weeks, which I know is a reality for many new mothers. She was proposing that I take the shortest possible time as I needed to get my ass back to work right away. What was so aggravating, is that thanks to my cousin, I am aware of the paid leave options provided by the state of California. Why was she seemingly so reluctant to let me know my leave options? FMLA allows me to take up to 12 weeks. I wondered how many employees wouldn't challenge this letter and would only take 6 weeks off. She doesn't actually work for our company, so there is no benefit if I take less leave, which is financed by payroll taxes and does not accrue costs our company. Actually they probably save money as they're not paying my salary while I'm out, although they lose the income generated from my productivity. Maybe she was offered some incentive to screw me over.
I sent her another email and I revealed that I had a family member who is a Human Resources director and had discussed my leave options, including California's Paid Family Leave. Her simple response: "that's a different leave. You'll apply for that when your disability leave finishes". I wanted to write back to ask when or if she even planned to discuss this leave with me and why any mention of it was omitted from the forms in my 'Leave Packet'. I sat on my hands to prevent myself from writing such a message. Firstly I figured that she would just reference the extremely vague and confusing handbook that can be downloaded from the company's intranet. Secondly, until everything is complete, it's probably best not to completely piss her off. I emailed the Bean Counter to inform her of my intended leave, which included my Pregnancy Disability Leave, Paid Family Leave and my 4 weeks of PTO, which I knew were available to me. Much to my surprise, the Bean Counter actually asked the DS to remove the arbitrary return date as she did not want my schedule to be opened, which could lead to booking erroneous appointments for patients.
The California disability leave also allows pregnant women to start their leave four weeks prior to the due date. I've always held a certain admiration for women who work up until their due date. One of my colleagues in Connecticut started contracting as she finished seeing patients in the afternoon session. We hooked her up to the office monitor and she finished her charting while banging out contractions every 3-4 minutes. Once she was done, she walked over to Labour and Delivery to be admitted and her baby was born later that night. Over the past few weeks, I've developed an apprehension as I leave the office each night. If I had to be taken out of work, how many tasks would I be leaving for others to finish? Thus, it's become a push not to leave anything for the next day. All my billing, results reconciliation and other correspondence must be complete each night. I realised that it would actually be less disruptive and less of an imposition to my colleagues to have a set end date, even if it does mean starting my leave earlier. Additionally, there really is no benefit to working longer, except that it's more time get paid on your full salary than partial disability pay. I've heard some patients say "I'd rather work up to the due date to be able to take more time off after the baby is born", but the four weeks prior to the due take is a 'take it of leave' it proposition. You can't apply it to the leave after the baby is born. My new mantra; don't be a hero. It's better to leave on your terms.
It's funny how over a year ago, I was longing to be able to take a maternity leave as I was starting to feel burnt out. As my work load has been much more reasonable, I no longer feel such a need to escape. Since I entered the work force, I've never taken longer than two weeks off at any given time. I fear I'll lose a little of my identity during my leave. I'll miss my patients. I wonder how many office policies and procedures will change while I'm gone. I wonder how rusty and out of sorts I'm going to feel after four months off. Mostly, I wonder how lonely it's going to feel going back to work without Jate. I've grown accustom to his or her company.