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'An impossible choice' | Families struggle with no paid leave

4 out of 5 workers in the South do not have access to paid family leave.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn — The days are getting a little easier now that Sarah Herron has found a job that works for her family.

"I have a two and a three-year-old. A boy and a girl," Herron said. "They are wild and crazy but so sweet." 

Credit: Sarah Herron
Sarah Herron's children embrace for a picture.

However, she recalls a dark time after the birth of her first child. It was supposed to be one of the happiest times of her life.

"I felt ashamed. I felt like a problem," Herron said. 

Credit: Sarah Herron
Sarah Herron and her husband kiss their newborn son.

Herron took a leave of absence from her former job as a dental assistant under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which guaranteed her job but not her pay.

"I took the full 12 weeks that you can get. Unfortunately, I only got paid for the vacation that I had which was 3 weeks," Herron said. "My husband at the time just got a new job and took a significant pay cut so we struggled even more so." 

They applied and qualified for food assistance to help make ends meet, but it wasn't nearly enough for the family of three.

Herron eventually returned to work only to be faced with more problems.

"When I went back I started pumping, and I was told that I needed to start clocking out for those sessions," Herron said. "There were many days where I cried in my car because what do you do?"

Lack of paid leave policies hurting U.S. workers

Time and again families are forced to choose between earning a paycheck or bonding with a new baby, caring for loved ones, or taking care of themselves.

Nearly 80% of U.S. workers do not receive paid family and sick leave through their employer and almost half are not covered by the federal FMLA.

4 out of 5 workers in the South do not have access to paid family leave, according to a survey by the U.S Department of Labor and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world that does not guarantee its citizens paid leave, costing workers and their families more than $22 billion every year in lost wages.

What is happening in Tennessee

Feroza Freeland advocates for workers and supportive policies on behalf of Nashville-based non-profit A Better Balance.

"For most families in our state we know that folks just can't afford to take the time without pay, and so it really has significant consequences from a health standpoint and from an economic standpoint for our families who have to make these impossible choices," Freeland said.

Some Tennessee lawmakers have been working to address the problem.

Tennessee HB 1295, the Tennessee Family Insurance Act, introduced by Rep. Gloria Johnson (D) of Knoxville last February, would create a paid family and medical leave insurance program funded by employee contributions.

People who pay into the fund can draw from it when they need to.

Similar bills have been introduced in the legislature but have failed to pass.

HB 1295 was not heard in committee this session, even though a July 2020 poll shows 84% of Tennessee voters support the program.

Meantime, ten other states and the District of Columbia are taking action by enacting their own paid family leave policies. 

In April, Delaware became the 11th state to pass paid family and medical leave. That bill is now headed to the governor's desk.

The Build Back Better Act that contains a national family and medical leave federal program remains stalled in Congress. 

"This is absolutely a growing trend across the country. As we've seen, unfortunately, Congress fail to act, more and more states are stepping up," Freeland said.

Freeland believes a statewide paid family leave policy would boost the economy and help local businesses thrive.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper recently announced a plan to provide the city's public school employees with paid family leave to care for a new child or an ill family member.

Governor Bill Lee proposed a paid family leave policy for state employees in 2020, but that was shelved during the pandemic.

According to his staff, there are no immediate plans to revive it.

What businesses are doing

Jenny Parkhurst, owner of The Back Porch Merchantile in Knoxville, said a paid family leave is too expensive to offer privately, but she still wants to support her employees.

"We actually have someone who's pregnant right now who will continue to work for us. She's going to be doing online things that she can do at home, so we have some flexibility here which I think does help the working mom," Parkhurst said.

Like many women, Mihaela McReynolds is also trying to find her balance as a mom in the workplace.

The software developer recently gave birth to her second child.

"[With] my first child, I had to quit my job so I could stay home and take care of her. With this baby, I didn't have to make that choice," McReynolds said. 

McReynolds was the first employee at Knoxville-based software company SmartRIA to need maternity leave. Her boss created a six-week paid family leave policy for his entire staff.

"I came back to work after six weeks, and I had a flexible schedule, I was able to choose my hours and how many hours I worked," McReynolds said.

"We felt like it was something that we could do and would help us to have a team that understands how much we value them," CEO Mac Bartine said. 

Bartine said the pandemic made him rethink his company's benefits to incentivize employees. Most now work remotely.

Bartine also offers a 36-hour workweek and unlimited paid time off. In the past year, he has nearly tripled his number of employees.

"People who could work for Google or Amazon who live in California are working for us," Bartine said. "It's not something that's costing us a ton of money, and people are happy and we're growing." 

Some of the largest companies across the country are jumping on board.

More than 350 companies with some of the best-known brands in America, including Airbnb, Twitter and Reddit, recently came out in support of a national campaign pushing for the passage of national paid leave for every worker in the country.

Bigger corporations like Amazon, Starbucks and Target now offer paid family leave policies.

Courtney Jones, Chief Revenue Officer at employment agency Boulo Solutions, said the payoff is immeasurable.

"The companies that are really doing that are having access to talent that companies that aren't thinking about those types of benefits are not going to have access to. There are plenty of people now who just recognize they have options," Jones said. 

McReynolds has been able to grow her career since returning to the workplace, something she says would not have been possible without paid support from her company.

"I would never consider going to another company that does not have this level of care for their employees," McReynolds said. 

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