February 5 is always bittersweet for me. It marks the anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA). That’s the sweet part.
This amazing law allows an employee to take unpaid leave from work to care for family or take medical leave when he or she is unable to work. It also grants leave for adoption or foster care. An employee has up to 12 weeks FMLA leave in any 12-month period.
The bitter part is that this time of year reminds me why I hold this law so dear.
Last year on February 9, four days after the 15th anniversary of FMLA, Nicole Wielgus, my 9-year-old sister passed away from a rare brain infection. Britney bravely fought her illness for nearly a month. She endured two brain surgeries, countless painful procedures, and neurological rehabilitation before she relapsed and was put into a medically induced coma that she never came out of.
During an overlapping time period, our father underwent three emergency surgeries and was in and out of the Intensive Care Unit of a different hospital.
Both Britney and my dad were hospitalized in Arizona; I live in Virginia and work in D.C. By some small miracle, my employer, the ACLU, offered paid FMLA leave, and D.C. had an additional FMLA provision that covered providing care to a blood relative with a serious medical condition. This combination of benefits allowed me to stay with Britney while she battled her illness, letting my mom to be with my dad while he was treated for his medical problems.
I cut Britney’s umbilical cord when she entered this world, I taught her to ride a two-wheeler, I took her to Disneyland; somehow, it seemed appropriate the I held her hand as she left this world. Britney hated to be alone more than anything, and my employer’s family leave policy allowed me to be with her so she was never alone while she was fighting for her life.
On February 13, 2008, we had a wake for Britney. My dad’s doctor agreed to grant him a one day pass to leave the hospital and attend Britney’s services. Unfortunately, the day of Britney’s wake my dad’s doctor informed me he needed emergency surgery and would not be able to attend the wake or the funeral. I used extended family leave to stay with my dad during the surgery. On Valentine’s Day — after burying Britney, I visited my father.
My mother’s experience was not as good as mine. My mom’s employer granted her FMLA leave which provided job protection and continued insurance coverage, but it was unpaid. Without both parents earning an income, my parents lost their home, their car, and filed for bankruptcy. Losing their material possessions was nothing compared to losing Britney, but it is made it harder for them to rebuild their lives.
I know our story seems so unlikely and uncommon. But it happens, and it can happen to just about anyone.
Britney was a normal healthy little girl until January 2008. My employer’s family leave policy goes beyond what is required by federal law and was the only reason I was able to receive paid, job protected leave during my family’s tragedy. Under current federal law, my absence from work to be with Britney would not have been covered. My leave to be with my father would have been unpaid. I would have been bankrupted, in addition to being heart-broken.
For Britney, for my family, and for all caregivers, I strongly urge you to tell your member of Congress to support legislation mandating paid FMLA coverage. Even without the current economic crisis, few Americans can afford FMLA to battle painful and serious illness.