By Noreen Farrell, Managing Attorney, Equal Rights Advocates & Beth McGovern, Legislative Director, California Commission on the Status of Women
Julia was eight months pregnant when her employer informed her that her health insurance coverage would be dropped during her pregnancy leave. Julia panicked. Without insurance, she faced thousands of dollars in medical bills. Not knowing if she could cover the expenses, Julia worried she would be unable to continue care with her doctor just when she needed it the most. Lack of health insurance coverage exposed Julia and her baby to medical risks, fiscal ruin, and extreme anxiety. Sadly, Julia is not alone.
Equal Rights Advocates, a San Francisco-based nonprofit legal organization, receives too many calls for help from women like Julia – workers who have lost their health insurance coverage just before or right after the birth of a child. A gap in California law is putting pregnant women and new mothers in this awful predicament – forced to work or return to work against their doctor’s recommendation, or risk losing the insurance coverage that makes health care affordable.
Working women make up nearly half of the American workforce, and pregnant women have a stronger connection to the workforce than ever before. In fact, three in four women entering today’s workforce will become pregnant at least once while employed and generally stay in the workforce. Women need access to affordable pregnancy leave so that they can take time off before and after birth without losing pay and important benefits such as health insurance coverage. It is well-documented that lack of pregnancy leave impacts the health of mothers and newborn children. When forced to pay out-of-pocket costs for health coverage, many women delay or cut short their leave. Indeed, almost four in five workers report being unable to take leave because they could not afford it.
Pregnancy and childbirth can be the most vulnerable time of a woman’s life. And the risk of complications during pregnancy or childbirth is a very real one. Statistics show that approximately 13 percent of women will have a complication from pregnancy requiring them to be hospitalized before delivery. 20 percent of pregnant women spend a minimum of one week on bed rest during the course of their pregnancy. That is why access to both continued medical care and leave from work are crucial.
Experts agree on the importance of effective prenatal care and pregnancy leave. UC Berkeley professor Dr. Sylvia Guendelman, a maternal and child health expert, writes: “Effective prenatal care can help reduce societal and individual burdens to mothers and infants. Working women who are able to get coverage for prenatal care are more likely to take maternity leave, which has been shown to have positive effects on mothers and infants, as well as on employee retention and loyalty.”
While California’s Pregnancy Disability Leave Act enables most workers to take a job-protected leave for a pregnancy-related condition, the law does not require employers to continue health insurance coverage during the leave. The state legislature has an opportunity to fix this problem. California Senate Bill 299, authored by Senator Noreen Evans, would amend state law to ensure that employers continue health insurance coverage for workers who take leave for pregnancy or childbirth related conditions.
SB 299 will protect California’s pregnant women, new mothers and their children – a bi-partisan issue that all legislators can proudly get behind.
For more information on SB 299, please visit http://workfamilyca.org/campai…