12/12/2013 05:03 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

What Happened When I Didn't Have Paid Family Leave

I ran smack into the paid family leave debate long before I had kids. I was working as a newspaper reporter in South Carolina, far from my Midwestern hometown, but still glad to have snagged a job in my shrinking industry during a (previous) recession.

That's when my mom learned that she had breast cancer.

At the time, Mom was single and my brother a teenager. I went to my boss to request a full week off (maybe two?) to take care of her. Having started my career less than a year before, I only had a few days of paid vacation for the following year. I distinctly remember offering to take the time as unpaid -- whatever it took to get home to my mom.

I can remember my boss' response as if it happened yesterday: "Isn't there someone else who can take care of your mother?" No, as it happened, there wasn't. Sure, Mom had great friends who would -- and did -- pitch in, but come on, this was my mother.

He said no. So there I was, trapped between my job -- the only one I had been offered after mailing out so many (many) resumes -- and my mom. I ended up splitting the difference and using up my few paid vacation days to fly home to care for her pre- and post-surgery and organized follow-up care through her network of great pals. But leaving Mom while she was so weak (and my brother so young) was terrible. A year later, I would have the protection of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to take an unpaid leave, but this was a year too early.

Since then, I have taken two FMLA leaves -- one for each of my babies -- and I've only come to realize in recent years how lucky I was to have been paid during both of them. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families , a mere 11 of the U.S. work force has paid family leave through their employer, and fewer than 40 percent have access to personal medical leave through an employer-provided temporary insurance program.

This week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) will put forth legislation that is long overdue: The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (aptly named the FAMILY Act) that would provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for themselves, their child, parent or spouse (including a domestic partner). It would also cover leave for the birth or adoption of a child or due to the injury of a family member who is in the military.

The program would work similarly to unemployment insurance in that employees and employers would pay into a pool (about $1.50 a week for the average worker). Employees who tap the fund would receive 66% of their wages, up to a capped amount (regardless of their company's size).

Similar programs are now running in New Jersey and California, meaning that even as employees have access to paid leave, their employers are able to hire temporary replacements with the payroll savings -- all of which keeps the work flowing. What's not to love?

FMLA passed 20 years ago this year as a first step in protecting working families, not the last one. It's time to protect me, my family and all working Americans with the FAMILY Act. Show your support for this legislation by adding your signature to our ongoing petition with the National Partnership for Women and Families here and tell Congress to support the FAMILY Act today.