After A Teacher Spoke Out About Her Stillbirth, D.C. May Give Workers More Paid Leave Mayor Muriel Bowser's office introduced the emergency legislation after D.C. Public Schools teacher Liz O'Donnell spoke out about her stillbirth.
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After A Teacher Spoke Out About Her Stillbirth, D.C. May Give Workers More Paid Leave

D.C. currently offers city workers up to eight weeks of paid parental leave, but it does not offer leave for a stillborn child. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

Update: The D.C. Council tabled a bill Tuesday that would have granted city employees two weeks of paid leave following the death of a family member or a stillbirth. Councilmember Elissa Silverman (D-At Large) plans to expand the scope of the bill and will reintroduce it next month, The Washington Post reported.

Original story: The D.C. Council is expected to vote on emergency legislation Tuesday that would grant city employees two weeks of paid bereavement leave following the death of a family member or a stillbirth.

The proposed legislation grew out of one city employee's personal tragedy. On Dec. 1, 2020, D.C. Public Schools teacher Liz O'Donnell gave birth to a stillborn daughter, Aaliyah Denise, after doctors told her just a few days earlier that her baby had no heartbeat. O'Donnell lost nearly a liter and a half of blood during her 48-hour labor. The epidural aggravated pre-existing scar tissue and left her in constant pain.

O'Donnell requested eight weeks for recovery through the city's paid family leave program for government workers. But D.C. Public Schools told her the policy no longer applied to her because her baby had not survived.

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"DC government policy is essentially punishing me for not walking out of GW Hospital with my daughter, Aaliyah," O'Donnell wrote on Facebook on Jan. 8. "The District of Columbia has no respect for the fact that my body is still healing from having a child and that my body is still functioning as if there is a child to feed."

Her post has since garnered thousands of reactions and shares on Facebook and Instagram. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stillbirth affects 1 of 160 births; roughly 24,000 stillbirths occur every year in the U.S.

If passed, the new D.C. law would allow any city employee, including public school teachers like O'Donnell, to take two weeks of leave following "the death of a family member ... a third-trimester miscarriage, or a stillbirth." The leave would need to be taken within 60 days of the event.

"We know these unfortunate instances affect employees in a deeply personal way, and our proposed benefit recognizes this unique need," wrote D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in a letter to the council. "We take care of our employees."

The reactions to the bill, though, have been mixed. Some residents raised concerns about the language of the bill, particularly its lack of a definition for "stillbirth." The CDC defines a stillbirth as the loss of a baby at or after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and a miscarriage as the loss of a baby before 20 weeks.

"There's no such thing as a third-trimester miscarriage, so that's confusing," says Erin Wallace Morrison, the founder and facilitator of the D.C. Pregnancy Loss and Infant Death Peer Support Group.

At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman says she brought up the wording issue with Bowser, whose office proposed the emergency legislation. The mayor clarified that the legislation will use the CDC's definition of stillbirth and therefore covers the loss of a baby at or after 20 weeks.

Other mothers who gave birth to stillborn children say the measure, though a step in the right direction, falls short in one key way: only giving city workers two weeks of paid leave.

"I hardly even knew my own name two weeks after my son was stillborn," says Gillian Brockell, who works in D.C. but lives in Takoma Park, Md. "Just the idea that I would be able to go to work is absolutely laughable. There's the physical issue of everything the woman goes through. There's also the personal issue of grieving a child who has died."

Brockell, 40, says her initial claim for maternity leave was denied because her private employer's insurance company classified the leave as "baby bonding time," and she was told she had no baby to bond with after her son was stillborn in late 2018. Her employer rectified the situation and she took 10 weeks off before returning part-time.

"What company or what school district is going to go bankrupt by just giving the grieving mother the full maternity leave? She's grieving, she's going to be using that entire time to grieve," says Brockell.

Morrison agrees that two weeks is not enough time for most women to recover from the physical and emotional toll of a stillbirth. After her daughter was stillborn in 2012, Morrison struggled for months to get back into her regular routine. She used her Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) time in pieces: She'd manage to work in her office for half a day, then rush back to her car to cry.

"You're still going through everything a woman goes through with a living baby, except there's no living baby at the end," Morrison says. "It's incredibly difficult. To be honest, the two weeks afterwards were focused just on physical care. The emotional care didn't come until later."

Under D.C.'s paid family leave program for private-sector workers, the parents of a stillborn child are eligible for the full eight weeks of parental leave. It remains unclear whether the council could make any significant changes to Bowser's bill, mostly because emergency legislation — which goes into effect immediately stay in effect for 90 days — cannot impose new costs on the government.

But in her letter to the council, Bowser also said D.C. offers its employees a range of leave options — including unpaid leave under FMLA — they can use under a variety of circumstances.

Morrison says she's glad the D.C. government is doing more to publicly support families who have experienced stillbirth. In December, Bowser signed the Certificate of Stillbirth Amendment Act, requiring the Department of Health to issue a certificate of stillbirth at the request of parents.

"Having it written out in these ways shows that a stillbirth holds the same weight as the loss of any family member," Morrison says.

In an interview with WAMU/DCist, O'Donnell said she's using sick leave to recover after her loss. And while she appreciates Bowser introducing the bill, she still thinks it misses the broader point about when maternity leave should apply.

"I think it's important for not only women who have experienced a stillbirth, but any parent that loses a child that they get a fair amount of leave. That's a very important mental health conversation to have. Bereavement is extremely important, but that is not what I was originally talking about," she said. "I feel like there's still more that needs to be discussed, not only in D.C. This is a nationwide issue. I think it's a start."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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