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Commentary Politics

‘I Don’t Want People to Feel Like I Did’: How a Family Crisis Turned This Mother and Son Into Activists for Paid Leave

Ellen Bravo

On February 12, Maria and Fidel traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak at a press conference heralding the introduction of the FAMILY Act, a bill to establish a family and medical leave insurance fund so workers could draw wages while caring for a new child or a serious personal or family illness.

Maria Hernandez, age 65, cleans buildings for Amazon in Kenosha, Wisconsin. For nearly four years, she’s worked for a subcontractor that provides janitorial services to the tech giant. After she collapsed one day last summer from a diabetes-related problem and had to go by ambulance to the hospital, Maria asked for paid medical leave while she recovered.

Maria was told she could have the time, but it would be unpaid. When she asked to use her vacation pay, she was told she couldn’t do so because she was on leave.

Her son Fidel Onofre Hernandez, who works at the same location in the fulfillment center but is an Amazon employee, requested paid leave to care for her. He was denied. 

“They said I could take the time, but without any pay,” Fidel wrote in a statement to the press. “I had to keep working to make money to cover our living expenses. With only my income, for five months we had to eat from food pantries.”

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On February 12, Maria and Fidel traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak at a press conference heralding the introduction of the FAMILY Act (H. 1185/S. 463), a bill to establish a family and medical leave insurance fund so workers could draw wages while caring for a new child or a serious personal or family illness.

At the press conference, they stood in front of a packed room with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), the bill’s lead sponsors, and a host of other members of Congress. Fidel, who is deaf, signed while Maria read his remarks.

The room remained silent as Maria shared Fidel’s description of the special bond he has with his mother: “It hurt me that I could not be there for my mom, who held my hand through all of my life’s fears as a child who could not hear. After working 10 hours a day, I would drive home through construction traffic and all I could think about is, ‘Is my mom OK? God, please take care of my mom.’ I couldn’t sleep good because I would get up throughout the night to make sure my mom was OK.”

The pain of this experience turned Fidel and Maria into activists for paid leave. “I don’t want people to feel like I did,” Fidel said. “We should not have to worry about anything but focusing on our loved one’s recovery.”

Fidel and Maria speaking at the press conference introduction of the FAMILY Act.

The two got involved with 9to5 Wisconsin, which is part of Family Values @ Work, a network of state coalitionsof which I am co-directorworking for paid time to care. Family Values @ Work raised funds to bring them and a dozen others to D.C. for this event.

In the State of the Union this month, the president announced he would “include in my budget a plan for nationwide paid family leave.” But the plan the administration touts would cover only parents of new children, for too short a time and too little money, drawing on state unemployment insurance funds. States would have to raise rates on employers or cut benefits from laid-off workers to make the payments.

The FAMILY Act, by contrast, covers time to heal, care for a seriously ill loved one, or deal with needs arising from a military deployment, as well as to welcome a new child. It pools small contributions from employers and employees to create a fund that would provide 12 weeks of pay for those needing time to care. Groups like ours are working to ensure that the final version of the bill incorporates improvements based on new state law, including higher wage replacement rates for those who earn the least, and an inclusive definition of family. The bill, which has 167 co-sponsors in the House and 34 co-sponsors in the Senate, is moving through the House Ways and Means committee.

Fidel and Maria came to D.C. along with others needing paid time to care to meet with their elected officials and make clear that the plan that passes must provide paid leave for all—accessible to every worker regardless of where they live, who they work for, who they love or need to take care of.

Two women working at the Southwest Airlines ticket counter in D.C. welcomed Fidel and Maria as they prepared to depart. They arranged a wheelchair for Maria, who uses a cane, and early boarding for the two of them. When they commented on the brevity of Maria and Fidel’s trip, as their traveling companion, I explained why this mother and son had come to D.C. Both women clasped their hands and bowed their heads.

“Thank you,” they said to Fidel and Maria. “You’ve made our day.”

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