Lawmakers have tried and failed multiple times in the past several legislative sessions to pass a national paid family leave policy, but these protections are becoming more and more critical to families — especially for new moms.
In many states, new moms are able to take up to 12 weeks off work to recover and bond with their baby — either with leave from an employer or state-offered paid family leave — but for thousands of moms who deliver stillborn babies, they lose their leave benefits immediately.
It was a moment Cassidy Perrone couldn't wait to experience: motherhood for the first time.
"We had always wanted a St. Patrick's Day baby," said Perrone. "The pregnancy was a completely normal, very healthy other than the normal, you know, pregnancy issues like morning sickness and things to that effect, but everything was moving along great."
Perrone said that joy and excitement quickly turned into fear and worry when, at her 36-week checkup, the day before St. Patrick's Day 2022, she received horrifying news.
"I found out that evening that I was, in fact, in labor, but that my daughter's heartbeat had stopped," said Perrone.
Doctors told her she had to deliver her daughter, and that it would be a stillbirth.
"You have to go through actual labor," said Perrone. "I had to sit in a cold, dark room and literally think for 17 hours about the fact that I was about to meet my daughter, but that I would never be able to care for her. It truly was the worst 17 hours of my life."
As if that wasn't cruel enough, Perrone's work gave her a call a day after her daughter's funeral to let her know they would be revoking the approved state-paid family medical leave because her baby has died. Scripps News reached out to Perrone's employer for comment but received no response.
According to New York State law: "paid family leave may only begin after birth." If there is no baby, there is no leave.
"I would have never thought in a million years that they would take back the leave that they had already given, because I had given birth to a human being, I was almost full term," said Perrone.
This is happening legally nationwide. According to the CDC, more than 20,000 babies are born still each year, but most states do not include stillbirth moms in paid family leave policies.
In Perrone's case, the state offered her temporary disability instead.
"In exchange for paid family leave at $1,100 a week, they offered me temporary disability at a total of $170 a week before taxes," said Perrone.
Her bills were piling up, but Perrone was physically and mentally not ready to get back to work.
"To wake up every morning and see milk leaking out of your breasts was a constant reminder that my nightmare was my reality — and I also suffered excessive vaginal bleeding," said Perrone.
In fact, her doctor would not sign off on Perrone going to work just yet.
She ended up taking 12 weeks off of work to properly recover. That 12 weeks would have been covered by paid family leave if her baby had survived.
"We just now, a little over 18 months later, paid off the credit card debt that we accrued because of Olivia, and making that payment every month has been a constant reminder that New York emotionally and financially slapped me in the face in my darkest hour," said Perrone.
Perrone said she knows most women don't have the opportunity to take that needed time off, but she said it saved her life.
"When your child dies and you are in so much physical pain and suffering from postpartum depression, along with the postpartum complications that come with delivering a child — you don't want to live," said Perrone.
But, her anguish became advocacy. Now, Perrone is speaking up alongside New York State Senator Tim Kennedy, who authored a state bill to protect paid family leave for mothers of stillborn babies. It would add five words to the paid family leave policy: to recover after a stillbirth.
"The five words that are changed in the law will allow for families to get the paid family leave that they rightfully deserve when they give birth to a stillborn child," said Senator Kennedy.
Kennedy's own loss inspired this legislation. "My wife and I back in October of 2007, Oct. 19, 2007 gave birth to a little baby girl, Brigid Nicole Kennedy," said Kennedy. "She lived with us, but only for four minutes. All of the rights and privileges that were afforded under New York State law were granted to us because our little girl was with us for those four precious minutes. And to think that parents don't have those same rights under New York state law is mind boggling."
Kennedy has introduced the same legislation over the past several legislative sessions. This year, it received bipartisan support.
"This is not a partisan issue. This is a real human rights issue," said Kennedy. "It will help to rectify the health disparities and the disparities in the law that exist, especially for communities of color and those in the lower income brackets."
Perrone said politics is getting in the way of fixing those disparities. Life insurance companies have submitted 'letters of concern' to lawmakers, urging for this year's bill to not pass. Today, the legislation still sits waiting.
"I think that we deserve an answer as to why they are blocking this incredibly important bill that would help so many families," said Perrone. "I am starting with New York state, but I am not going to stop. We need to make sure that our government chooses moms over money."
Perrone and Kennedy alike said they're in for a long fight to ensure equal protection for all mothers, in both New York state and nationwide. Perrone said she knows it will be a legacy built in part by her lucky charm, her baby girl Olivia, who came into the world on St. Patrick's Day. Perrone said she now sees that as a gift.
"Olivia wanted to come on St. Patrick's Day, and in many ways now, I look back and think it was actually perfect. Because I think she got to meet my grandfather on that day," said Perrone. "I need her to have a meaning and a sense of purpose, and I know that what she would want me to do is to make sure that no one after us has to endure the treatment that we received by New York in our darkest hour, to have to worry about how they're going to pay their bills and put food on their table when they're dealing with the greatest loss of probably their entire life, burying a child."
To read the full text of the New York state legislation,click here.
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