Denied paid go away after a stillbirth at 31 weeks, Elizabeth O’Donnell is popping grief and anger into motion

When Elizabeth O’Donnell was 31 weeks pregnant, she was decorating her home for Christmas last November when she found she hadn’t felt any movement from her growing baby all day. She rushed to George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC, where she received the devastating news: Doctors could no longer detect a fetal heartbeat and she still had to give birth to her baby.

From her hospital bed, the 30-year-old first grade teacher at Watkins Elementary in Washington, DC, updated her headmaster, who then contacted the DC public school absence office. O’Donnell, due in late January, had originally planned to take the remainder of the school year off with a combination of benefits including the District of Columbia Public School System’s Paid Family Vacation Policy, the Federal Unpaid Family Vacation Act, and the Sick days, vacation days and public holidays that she had accumulated.

A week and a half later, she contacted DCPS and said that she would only take her pre-approved 8-week paid family vacation when she recovered from the birth and then return to the classroom.

“So here I am being naive and thinking this is better for you,” said O’Donnell. “I’ll be back. I won’t be out for the rest of the school year.”

Instead, she was told that she was no longer entitled to family vacation benefits because she was “only looking after herself”.

“I felt like I was being told my daughter didn’t exist,” said O’Donnell of the moment. “And I’ll never have someone to tell me my child didn’t exist.”

O’Donnell re-read the school system’s paid family vacation policy and found that there was nothing in it that would prevent her from taking her scheduled vacation. Her friend introduced her to a labor lawyer.

I said to him, ‘Look, if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. But all it says is “having a baby,” O’Donnell said of politics. “It doesn’t say whether this child is alive or not …”

While O’Donnell was taking unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act for her postpartum recovery, her attorney sent a letter to DCPS. The agency, she said, again refused her vacation.

Angry, she posted a photo of her in the hospital on Instagram, showing the body of her daughter Aaliyah, which means “exalted” in Arabic and “risen” in Hebrew. In it, she described her grief, painful work and recovery, and her denial of paid leave by DCPS.

“DC government policy denies me paid family leave (8 weeks for postnatal recovery) because I cannot provide my daughter with a birth certificate,” wrote O’Donnell. “Unfortunately I can provide her with cremation papers – but that makes no difference to her decision.”

Her Instagram post sparked contact with other women whose pregnancies ended in stillbirths.

“So many other teachers went straight back to work and worked with children after they lost their own child. Some women were able to get their paid vacation and shared it with me. Some women told me they had a week off but were not on sick leave and had to go back straight away, ”recalled O’Donnell. “To hear all these different stories, it’s just crazy for me that there are no universal, or at least national, in this country [aid]. ”

The state of paid family vacation is a patchwork quilt between states, making the United States one of the few developed countries in the world that does not guarantee paid and family medical vacation through national policy. Less than 20 percent of states have guidelines for paid family and medical leave, some of which are not yet in place. According to the federal law on family leave passed in 1993, employees receive up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected family and sick leave. Most recently, the Biden government reaffirmed its commitment to extending paid vacation through the $ 1.9 trillion Covid-19 Relief Act known as the American Rescue Plan, which provides tax credits to companies that give their employees by Offer September 30th Paid Vacation Universal politics are still elusive.

Now O’Donnell is back in her first grade classroom at Watkins Elementary, where she has taught for seven years. She has recovered from her labor complications, which included an epidural that made scar tissue worse after a previous sports injury that made it difficult for her to get out of bed and get in and out of the car. While she’s still having a month-long argument with DCPS over her parental leave benefits, her openness to her own experiences serves as a catalyst for changing politics around women and childbirth in her hometown.

“I was contacted by some DC Council members who were very interested in the story and wanted to know what happened and how they can help fix it,” said O’Donnell. To that end, Councilor Elissa Silverman led efforts to pass a law granting parents 10 days of paid leave to mourn after a stillbirth or loss of a child under the age of 21. Since then, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has signed a bill to offer birth certificates for stillborn babies on demand – a bill that was in the works before O’Donnell’s loss but has picked up in the media spotlight.

DCPS declined to comment but referred Know Your Value to the Deputy Mayor’s Office for Education.

“After losing her daughter, Ms. O’Donnell continues to be our hearts,” said Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn. “Recently, Mayor Bowser worked with the council to pass legislation to provide for district workers, including DCPS teachers.” with extended paid leave to mourn the devastating loss of a minor child or a stillbirth. “

O’Donnell said, “I feel like I’m putting my anger into action.” She added, “And I’m very grateful that this is now for families in need … but I keep saying that I have to stay true to my original argument here, and that is that the way DC wrote this paid vacation leaves it open to interpretation and people can choose: yes, this includes stillbirths, or no, and what are we going to do about it? And about that, people don’t seem ready to really talk about it yet – so I’m going to keep talking about it, because we have to be ready to talk about it. “

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