When a 31-week pregnant Elizabeth O’Donnell noticed she hadn’t felt any fetal movement all day, she rushed to George Washington University Hospital in D.C. to make sure everything was OK. Sadly, what followed was the worst news any parent-to-be can hear: there was no longer a heartbeat. O’Donnell, 30, would have to deliver her baby stillborn. But what followed next added insult to injury and grief: because the District of Columbia Public Schools teacher could not provide a birth certificate for her baby, she would be denied Paid Family Leave (PFL) and expected to return to work.
O’Donnell, who has worked at Watkins Elementary for seven years, says she was meant to be on leave from Jan. 24 through the end of the school year in June, using PFL (DCPS grants eight work weeks paid) as well as holidays, sick days and vacation days accrued.
Due to the pre-term labor and loss she experienced, however, she had to leave work on Nov. 30. O’Donnell reached out to DCPS to explain that she would only take her eight weeks of PFL for postpartum recovery.
"The response I received from DCPS was that I was no longer eligible for the PFL because I was only caring for 'myself,'" says O’Donnell. The first-grade teacher was told to apply for the unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and/or use whatever sick leave she had left.
“I explained that I did ‘birth a child,’ which is one of the qualifications for the eight-week PFL. I was again denied and told it no longer applied to me,” O’Donnell explains. When she asked for what they defined as the “birth of a child,” she was ignored, so she instead obtained a lawyer.
“The fact is, my employer was choosing to not grant the leave that I had already been granted while pregnant because my daughter Aaliyah was not living,” says the grieving mother. “My body recovering, and the sheer fact that I did birth a child, is not dependent on Aaliyah being alive or not.”
O’Donnell didn’t mince words on her Instagram page, sharing not only the mental and emotional anguish of losing her baby, but the physical pain she was in as well.
"I vaginally delivered my daughter at around 5:30am on December 1, 2020 after being in labor for 48 hours,” the post reads. “I then needed surgery afterwards where I lost almost a liter & a half of blood. I had an epidural that aggravated scar tissue from a previous injury and I am now in constant pain every day as a result until it heals."
O’Donnell says she hasn’t heard from DCPS since hiring her attorney and they have not responded to Yahoo Life's requests for comment for this story. The D.C. teacher has, however, found empathy and action in the D.C. Council — most notably from Council members Christopher Allen, Christina Henderson and Elissa Silverman.
Since O’Donnell’s story came to light, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser also jumped into action by signing an act to offer certificates for stillbirths on request. The mayor also attempted to pass the District Government Parental Bereavement Leave Emergency Amendment Act of 2021 — which would add two weeks of paid leave to any District Government employee who experienced the death of a minor child or stillbirth.
“Suffering any loss, and particularly the loss of a child, is a devastating tragedy. I remain committed to ensuring that the District Government serves as a public sector leader in offering its workforce the most generous package of leave available,” Mayor Bowser said in a legislative letter shared by press secretary Susana Castillo. “This measure will provide an additional benefit for employees by expanding the District Government employee bereavement leave benefit.”
However, the bill was withdrawn by Council member Silverman in order to make some changes and determine the fiscal impact.
“Elizabeth’s case sort of brought to light some of the gaps of our public sector program,” Silverman noted. “You have sick days. But you don't have any, any compensated time to deal with medical recovery.”
This isn’t the first time Silverman fights to improve paid leave conditions for employees in D.C. When she first joined the city council, Silverman helped pass the Universal Paid Leave Amendment Act for employees working in the private sector.
“What the mayor initially proposed was expanded bereavement leave for anyone who loses a child up to the age of 21 including a ... stillbirth,” says Silverman. “(But) you know it's tough to draw the line. So I said, ‘Well can we expand to any one of these as a close family member as defined like in our family and medical leave law?’”
Silverman says while the Mayor agrees, it was subject to how much it would cost, citing the current financial challenges facing the city due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new version of the bill will be brought up again Tuesday. “It will be an expanded bereavement leave. ... The question is how much we would expand it for anyone else and we're still narrowing down a decision on that,” says Silverman. “Whatever we end up on will be implemented on an emergency basis which means it goes into effect immediately.”
For now, O’Donnell continues to fight for what she knows is right while using sick leave. “I keep thinking of the woman who experiences a stillbirth, is denied PFL and may not have so much leave saved up. Would she take unpaid FMLA and add finance concerns to the list of trauma she’s experiencing? Or, would she immediately go back to work and not give her body (or mind) the time it needs to heal? ... This is why I’m being so loud about this issue.”
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