POLITICS
01/10/2019 05:45 am ET Updated 6 days ago

For Expecting Parents, Government Shutdown Piles On The Stress

“With the baby coming, it’s scary,” one air traffic controller said.
One federal employee called the decision on whether to take leave “excruciating,” noting new moms, as well as co-
Lauren Bates via Getty Images
One federal employee called the decision on whether to take leave “excruciating,” noting new moms, as well as co-workers with sick children, are facing a similar dilemma.

The government shutdown hasn’t stopped babies from arriving. But some of their parents are federal employees who now can’t take paid leave.

Federal workers ― like many other Americans ― don’t get paid parental leave. But most are covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. They can substitute paid annual leave during that time to take care of the new baby or recover from labor. But during a government shutdown, scheduled paid time off is canceled.

New parents who stay home furloughed may be paid retroactively, like other federal employees, if Congress acts. But the uncertainty about when or if they’ll get paid is putting pressure on families.

Employees like Bill Striffler, the head of the local air traffic controllers union in Newark, New Jersey, worry if they stay home, they risk losing paychecks. Striffler and his wife Theresa, are expecting their first child on Friday, Jan. 18. Theresa, who works in sales, is hoping to collect disability pay.

In the meantime, Bill—considered an “essential” employee as an air traffic controller at Newark Liberty International Airport—plans to work up until the baby is born. At that point, he was intending to take accrued paid vacation time. But if the shutdown continues, and he takes that time off, it will be considered furlough, or unpaid time, and he doesn’t know whether he’ll recover the back pay. That could influence how much time he takes, he told HuffPost.

“If she really needs me home, that’s going to be my priority, and we’ll figure out the finances later,” Bill said. “But it definitely is going to have impact.”

“I was looking forward to him being able to take a couple weeks off and being paid for that time, but now there’s no guarantee that he’ll ever be paid if he does,” Theresa added. “It makes the situation scary.”

The partial government shutdown over President Donald Trump’s desired wall on the southwestern border, began Dec. 22 and affects only certain agencies. It has forced hundreds of thousands of federal employees deemed essential—like those protecting public safety—to work without pay, while others have been furloughed. They won’t get paid retroactively unless Congress acts, which has happened in past shutdowns, but in the meantime, bills are piling up. From fearing eviction to forgoing Lupus medication, Americans are feeling the effects of the shutdown ripple across their lives.

Expecting parents are in a particular lurch.

Another employee who works in enforcement for the Securities and Exchange Commission in Fort Worth, Texas, and asked not to be named because of concerns about the political climate, was due to have her second child Wednesday.

The employee has been saving up paid leave for almost a year in anticipation of having her baby, she told HuffPost on Tuesday, noting that she has approximately 140 paid hours from vacation and 60 paid hours in sick leave. Her paid leave was due to start on Wednesday, but because of the shutdown and her being furloughed, she now won’t be receiving her paycheck, she said.

“Does he stay home with his wife and two other children and risk not getting paid, or go to work and at least he knows he will get paid when the governments reopens?” Daniels asked. Nick Daniels, the Fort Worth center president for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

She’s fortunate, she noted, in that she’ll be able to access her paid leave when the shutdown ends. (Generally, the government also recommends that “use or lose” leave be restored if lost due to a shutdown.) Her supervisors are very understanding, she added, and her unpaid leave is, of course, protected under the law.

But she has had to borrow money from her parents, an option not everyone has, she pointed out. She worries about having to eventually file for unemployment benefits, “which I don’t really want to have to do,” she said.

Because she was furloughed, she also couldn’t work for several days before her maternity leave as planned, she said, which added more stress as she was “worried about the workload I may have left somebody else.”

Many employees represented by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association can use their own paid leave for an uninterrupted period of up to six months to care for a new child, said Nick Daniels, the Fort Worth center president for the organization. But if an employee decides to come to work to not be furloughed, this interrupts that time, he said.

One of Daniels’ co-workers, an air traffic controller in Fort Worth, had a baby less than a week ago, he noted. “Does he stay home with his wife and two other children and risk not getting paid, or go to work and at least he knows he will get paid when the governments reopens?” Daniels asked.

He called the decision “excruciating” and added that new moms, as well as co-workers with sick children, are facing a similar dilemma.

Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and others have backed legislation that would provide retroactive pay to employees impacted by the shutdown at the earliest date possible after the shutdown ends. It would also allow “excepted” employees to take leave during a shutdown and be subsequently paid. 

But for now, as Trump continues his public relations campaign for $5.7 billion for a barrier along the border, with no end to the shutdown in sight, federal employees and their families will continue to shoulder the burden.

“With the baby coming, it’s scary,” Bill Striffler said. “It’s not what I want to be worried about right now—getting paid for what I’ve actually been working.”

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