NY State: Stop Leaving Stillbirth Moms Out to Dry on PFL
Updated: May 20
Stillbirth is *Still BIRTH* and Mothers Have a Right to Heal Postpartum
Natasha Green's daughter, Jurni, was so ready to hit the ground running that she was learning about the world with her mama even before birth. "I would poke twice on my belly," Natasha recalls, beaming, "and Jurni would copy the pattern: two pokes right back."
But Jurni Evangelina Green-Hamilton never got the chance to make the impact that she was destined for - at least, not in the way her mother ever envisioned.
"I would poke twice on my belly and Jurni would copy the pattern: two pokes right back." -- Natasha Green on her daughter's personality in utero just days before Jurni died
When PUSH Changemaker Natasha Green was 39 weeks pregnant, she went in for a routine checkup only to be told that Jurni's heart had inexplicably stopped beating. She later learned that Jurni had died from umbilical cord compression from a tight nuchal cord.
Natasha's brain was spinning. "There were so many thoughts running through my mind," she says, "And one of them was, what did I do wrong?" But like the other 65 families every. single. day. in the United States who lose a child to stillbirth - many of whom are left without answers - Natasha did not do anything wrong. Rather, she and her daughter were yet another victim of a medical and public health system which has routinely swept the risk of stillbirth under the rug.
And the nightmare conclusion to her otherwise perfect pregnancy wasn't over yet. Natasha, a single mom, called her family to let them know she was checking in to the hospital to deliver her deceased baby.
It's not widely understood that stillbirth is just that: still birth. So at 7lbs 15 oz and 21 inches long, Jurni still needed to be born just like any other baby. The only difference was, after nine long months of anticipation and several grueling hours of labor, Natasha would be leaving the hospital without the prized child that was supposed to make it all worth it.
It's not widely understood that stillbirth is just that: still birth. Natasha's daughter was born still at 7 lbs 15 oz & 21 in long
At least, Natasha thought to herself, I will have several weeks to process and heal before I have to return to work. Only, she was in for a rude surprise when she emailed NY state to let them know that her daughter had been born and she was ready to claim her Paid Family Leave (PFL) benefits:
"I was at home in recovery in the weeks after Jurni's delivery," Natasha recalls, "And I received a call from the state basically saying, 'Actually, you no longer qualify for these benefits since you did not give birth.'" The state had revoked her paid leave.
Natasha was aghast. "I had been paying for those benefits through my own paycheck for years, and NY state approved my application during Jurni's pregnancy. I may not have had my baby in arms, but I still went through 9 months of pregnancy and a full-term birth. I was depending on that leave to recover physically before I could safely return to work, never mind to begin to process the mental anguish and heartache."
The state called basically saying, 'Actually, you no longer qualify for these benefits since you did not give birth.' -- Natasha Green on NY's response to her 39 week stillbirth
As a recent op-ed Natasha co-authored with fellow NY stillbirth mother Evelyn Rosario explains, "New York’s self-proclaimed 'nation-leading' paid family leave program serves as the state’s maternity leave policy and provides 12 weeks of paid leave upon the birth of a baby. Expectant parents who contribute to this employee-funded insurance program must apply for leave during pregnancy. Mothers depend on this money while they recover physically from the grueling feat of pregnancy and childbirth."
But a cruel loophole currently excludes mothers whose babies do not survive the pregnancy: the law, as it is currently written, only offers leave to birthing parents for "baby bonding" time, and since stillborn babies in New York do not receive a birth certificate, Jurni didn't qualify.
Regardless of whether a baby is born still or alive, though, the early postpartum period is absolutely critical for maternal health, especially for parents who identify as Black, Indigenous, or other People of Color (BIPOC), who are most at risk for serious complications due to systemic and structural racism. In fact, last week PUSH was part of a coalition of maternal health organizations and activists who launched National Postpartum Awareness Week to raise awareness of the dangers to Black and Brown birthing people in the postpartum period.
The early postpartum period is absolutely critical for maternal health, especially for BIPOC parents. Stillbirth moms are almost 5x's more likely to suffer complications
In the United States, approximately 40 percent of pregnancy-related maternal deaths occur within the six weeks after childbirth. And all postpartum mothers, no matter the pregnancy outcomes, are at risk for life-threatening conditions, such as postpartum hemorrhage, pulmonary embolism, postpartum depression or psychosis, etc., for weeks after delivery. And to top that off, mothers of stillborn babies are almost five times more likely to experience severe maternal complications.
Sure enough, within days after returning home from Jurni's birth, Natasha developed headaches and other symptoms consistent with postpartum preeclampsia, a dangerous and life-threatening condition which requires immediate medical intervention. "I had locked myself in my bedroom and refused to come out," Natasha remembers, "but my brother insisted on staying with me and my sister kept calling, because they were so worried I would take my own life." Eventually, Natasha mentioned the headaches to her sister, who urged their brother to take Natasha to the E.R. immediately. His actions likely saved her life.
If it were up to NY state, I would have been back in the office ... likely ignoring my symptoms -- Stillbirth Mom Natasha Green on suffering postpartum preeclampsia after her loss
"If it were up to NY state, I would have been back in the office by then, and I likely would have continued ignoring my symptoms, just trying to focus on finding a way out of the darkness of grief," she admits. The state had guaranteed Natasha leave during her pregnancy and then unceremoniously ripped out of her hands when she needed it most. The only reason Natasha had been able to take time off after birth and remain under the watchful eye of her loved ones is because she had previously contributed towards a short-term disability insurance option provided by her employer.
But other parents are not so lucky. Another PUSH Changemaker volunteer, Cassidy Perrone, endured a similar tragedy and subsequent denial of her Paid Family Leave after her daughter, Olivia, was stillborn at 36 weeks, an experience which Cassidy describes as "a slap in the face."
An attorney, Cassidy is the primary breadwinner for her family. "My husband is a public servant and works in law enforcement - something I love about him and deeply admire. But I knew when I married him that his earning potential was going to be limited, and that the bulk of our family's financial burden would fall on my shoulders." Cassidy was feeling that burn acutely two weeks after Olivia's birth, when she realized that without her paycheck and the Paid Family Leave she had planned for, they wouldn't be able to meet their mortgage payment. "I asked my doctor if she could clear me to go back to work, and she said, 'Absolutely not. Even if Olivia had lived, I would never consider clearing you sooner than 6 weeks,'" which is consistent with accepted medical guidelines.
Even though she had given birth and been denied leave, her husband apparently still qualified for PFL. But that didn't help Cassidy - the primary breadwinner - pay her mortgage.
To add insult to injury, Cassidy learned that even though she had given birth and been denied leave, her husband apparently still qualified for PFL. "NY State recognizes that being postpartum is a serious medical condition, and so my husband would be able to claim benefits to care for me." When Cassidy asked how that makes any sense, she was told by state lawmakers that "the intention of Paid Family Leave is to care for the serious medical condition of another, not yourself." As if when a baby is born still, the physical trauma of pregnancy and birth magically disappear along with all the hopes and dreams a mother has for her child.
Not to mention, where does that leave single moms like Natasha, who don't have a partner to fall back on? Even in Cassidy's case, any benefits her husband qualified for weren't enough to make ends meet. "We maxxed out our credit cards and did what we had to do to safeguard my health," Cassidy explains. "But we're going to be digging out of this hole for years, and not every family is lucky enough to be able to do that."
That was when Cassidy realized she couldn't sit back and allow NY state to continue to victimize other families. She reached out to several state legislators and found champions in Senator Tim Kennedy and Assemblymember Jenifer Rajkumar, who introduced S2175/A2880 to close this dangerous and callous loophole.
At a recent press conference, Senator Kennedy affirmed, “It’s important that families, mothers and fathers, have the ability to grieve, to heal with dignity and respect after the loss of a stillborn child." Assemblymember Rajkumar added, "These women deserve to be seen and to be included in the paid family leave law of our state."
The bill would amend the law to include recovering after a stillbirth as a qualification for paid family leave, instead of limiting it to "baby bonding time" for birthing people.
"We don't believe this is an intentional slight," explains Samantha Banerjee, PUSH Executive Director and mother to Alana who, like Natasha's daughter, was born still at 39 weeks. "We've spoken with dozens of lawmakers from both houses and both parties over the past several months, and no matter what else they believe, everyone agrees that it's completely appalling that this is happening to stillbirth parents - up to 4 families every single day in New York."
Dozens of lawmakers from both houses and both parties ... and everyone agrees -- PUSH Executive Director Samantha Banerjee on the response to the bipartisan bill A2880
Indeed, the bipartisan bill was passed unanimously by the State Senate in March, and is currently co-sponsored by 95+ of the state's 150 Assemblymembers, including 22 of the 28 members of the Labor Committee, where the bill is currently hamstrung in the Assembly.
"It was a long budget season this year, and this issue seems to have fallen off everyone's radar in the interim," Cassidy reflects. "But we've got three weeks left in the session, and our team is not going to give up without a fight. It's too late for our families and our babies, but we're going do everything in power to get justice for future stillbirth families. No one deserves to be treated like this."
Samantha adds, "We estimate that closing this cruel loophole in NY's PFL law will cost employees paying into the system a maximum of $1 per person per year. Do you know anyone who wouldn't give that to ensure moms like Natasha and Cassidy can heal safely after the horror of a stillbirth?"
Closing this cruel loophole in NY's PFL law will cost employees paying into the system a maximum of $1 per person per year. -- PUSH Exec Director Samantha Banerjee
Jurni and Olivia may have been robbed of their chance to be raised by their loving families, but that doesn't mean their lives aren't still having a major impact. "Every stillborn baby #StillCounts," affirms Samantha. "Jurni and Olivia are a testament to that. Their parents are bravely speaking out and have been working tirelessly for months to make sure that other parents aren't left out to dry by NY state the way their families were. And there is no force more powerful than a parents' love. NY state, it's time to do the right thing and guarantee that stillbirth parents get the time to heal that they deserve."
Time is running out to push this critical bill across the finish line! Here's how you can help:
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