By Anne Blythe
Sydney Batch, a North Carolina lawmaker, attorney, social worker, mother of two, small business owner and breast cancer survivor, has firsthand knowledge about the financial stresses that come with needing time off from work for maternity care and other health issues.
The state senator from Wake County and her husband own a small law firm in Raleigh with eight employees. After she gave birth to each of her sons, she was able to take three months off — but it was unpaid.
A few years ago, after Batch was diagnosed with breast cancer, her mother and sisters took unpaid time off from work to help her get to and from her medical appointments.
Her husband, though, could take very little time off during those momentous times because he did not have paternity leave, sick days or time off with pay.
“That was hard for me and my family,” Batch, a Democrat, said during a recent briefing with reporters. “But it would have been even harder if I was a single mom trying to make ends meet on minimum wage and without any paid sick days.”
“Nobody should be in that position,” Batch added. “We all need paid leave for both the joyful and most difficult moments of our lives. When new babies come and when we need care. And when we need time off to care for our loved ones, or to recover from our own illnesses.”
That was the backdrop against which Batch and Graig Meyer, her Senate colleague and an Orange County Democrat, advocated for bills that would give North Carolina workers more access to paid leave and higher wages.
They highlighted three bills for which they would like to see wider support inside the General Assembly:
Spotlighting different issues
With only Democratic sponsors in a General Assembly where the Senate and House of Representatives have Republican supermajorities, the bills face a steep uphill climb.
Nonetheless, Batch and Meyer hold out hope that lawmakers can do more for working families in a session that has given a significant amount of attention to culture-war issues that shine a national spotlight on the state.
The bills would raise the minimum wage in North Carolina to $15 an hour by 2025 and index it to the cost of living in the years beyond. They would phase out the lower minimums that employers can pay restaurant workers and others who regularly get tips — $2.13 per hour — and do away with exemptions that apply to incarcerated workers and employees with disabilities.
The bills also would make it so workers in small businesses could accrue up to four days a year of sick time. Larger companies would have to provide their employees with seven sick days each year.
The Paid Family Leave Insurance bill would establish a new state insurance program under which workers would be able to take longer periods of paid time off for childbirth, to care for family and receive treatment for and recuperate from serious illness.
Working mothers share stories
Nearly 1.6 million workers in the state don’t have a single paid sick day, Meyer said, while also stressing how few workers have paid family leave.
“There’s nothing short of an emergency for working people all across the state, for families that depend on their members to work and to be at home when they’re needed to care for others,” Meyer said. “We haven’t fixed this, but we can and we should. In fact, I would say that the policies that are being discussed today rise to a level of importance for most working people above just about any other bills that are getting far more attention from legislators or discussion in the media.”
To underscore their points, Batch and Meyer invited two working mothers to the podium to share their stories.
Blanca Borceguin, a Knightdale resident and a MomsRising member, became choked with emotion as she spoke about the struggles she faced while not having access to paid family leave.
“For eight years I worked at a small law firm as a legal assistant and notary and interpreter,” Borceguin said. “Like everyone on the staff I routinely worked extra hours, and during my last year there I got pregnant. I was joyous.”
When she was 37 weeks pregnant, though, her supervisor advised her that the firm didn’t offer paid maternity leave.
“That was news to me, and that quickly became a problem,” Borceguin said.
Because she had struggled to conceive and had a difficult pregnancy, her OB-GYN wanted to see her every two weeks. She found out soon from her employer that she was close to using all the paid time off that she was allotted.
“When the baby came, I was given 10 weeks of unpaid leave, but I had to pay $553 per month for my health insurance,” Borceguin added, as she wiped away tears. “That was a struggle in particular because we had a large medical bill from the birth, and the health insurance didn’t cover it.”
Then the new mother tried to find childcare for her infant and quickly realized not only were options scarce, they were expensive.
Long hours, few benefits
After she was able to return to work, Borceguin said she had health problems related to the birth and needed therapy that would help her avoid surgery, but also take her away from the office.
“For eight years I had worked long hours at this firm, and now when I needed some time off, they refused to give it to me,” Borceguin said. “I left that job, and I was fortunate to find another at a health clinic which allowed me to work from home.”
There were surprises there, too, leaving Borceguin in financial straits that left her relying on food pantries to feed her family.
“Not having access to paid leave makes you vulnerable, scared and helpless,” Borceguin said. “Nobody should have to choose between her job or caring for their newborn.”
Jen Hampton, an Asheville resident, worked in food service for more than 30 years and spoke about some of the travails in that industry. State law allows restaurants and other food service providers to pay lower than minimum wage to servers and others who routinely accrue tips.
“I’ve never been paid a living wage and never had paid sick days,” Hampton said.
Hampton stressed that few servers and food service workers get even one paid sick day. That leads to workers coming to work when they are ill because they live on the edge financially.
“The attitude is unless you’re vomiting, you’ve got to suck it up and soldier on,” Hampton said. “There have been many times I was forced to go to work even though I didn’t feel well and worried I was contagious.”
‘I was in panic’
During the coronavirus pandemic, Hampton said she tested positive twice for COVID-19.
“The first time I got really really sick, and I had to miss more than 10 days of work because I was just too sick to go back,” Hampton said. “Without paid sick days. I lost my income entirely while I recovered. I lived paycheck to paycheck.”
Being ill created a financial crisis for her, and instead of taking care of herself and healing, she was overcome with fear and went to work before she had fully recovered.
“I was in panic about what I was going to do to keep the bills paid, to keep the lights on,” Hampton said. She added that she was able to stay afloat only because she received a grant from a nonprofit dedicated to helping service workers.
“I don’t think that anyone should be put in that position,” Hampton said. “I think that we all need earned sick days for all. Now. And it’s also time that we raised the minimum wage in this state. Trying to make ends meet off of $7.25 an hour is not realistic or possible.”
NC Health News editor Rose Hoban contributed reporting to this story.