ATLANTA – In the weeks following the birth of her firstborn child, Georgia high school teacher Melody Montgomery’s world revolved around the quiet moments spent with her daughter sleeping peacefully in her lap.
Trifling household chores fell by the wayside, as every second not spent bonding with her new baby felt to Montgomery a second wasted. But invaluable as these moments were, they did not come without a significant and costly tradeoff.
“The whole time I knew that I wasn’t getting paid for being gone,” Montgomery said. “So that was kind of looming over me.”
Montgomery spent eight weeks away from her classroom on maternity leave, and like most Georgia employees did not receive any compensation. Her husband’s paycheck became the lone source of income, and the new family quickly found themselves in a financial crisis amidst the already daunting task of raising a newborn baby.
“It took us a long time to recover from that,” Montgomery said.
This burden is familiar for new families across the state. Traditionally, Georgia employees have only been entitled to federally provided unpaid leave, which usually covers six or 12 weeks, depending on eligibility. But for almost 250,000 teachers and state employees, that is about to change.
The General Assembly passed a law providing three weeks of paid parental leave for eligible state employees, which includes thousands of public-school teachers, state-agency employees and university staffers. The law, carried by Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, makes Georgia one of only a dozen or so states to provide paid family leave in any capacity, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
“It’s so hard to focus on all these 16-year-olds in my class when I have a 2-month-old with someone else,” Melody Montgomery, a Georgia high school teacher, said.
Upon the signature of the Governor, eligible employees will be entitled to three weeks of paid leave following the birth or adoption of a child, or the arrival of a child in foster care. For employee organizations across the state, it represents a significant step in the right direction. They would still be entitled to extend their parental leave up to nine more weeks, unpaid, under federal law.
“Paid parental leave allows parents to focus on meeting children’s needs at a critical time for families,” said Craig Harper, executive director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, in a statement
After stalling in the Senate last year, the law passed both chambers this session with widespread support. The House voted 153-8 for it and the Senate approved it unanimously.
While the bill was popular, Democrats in the Legislature criticized it for not including more weeks or provisions for paid medical leave as well. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends at least six weeks of paid leave for new parents, and Democrats in both chambers were eager to push for more.
“Something is better than nothing,” said Sen. Jennifer Jordan, D-Atlanta. “But I think we can do so much better by the people of this state.”
Gaines, while open to more weeks and benefits in the future, preferred to take a more limited approach to ensure the law would not once again fail in the Senate. He also emphasized that the three weeks provided by the bill can be combined with any time off an employee may have already accumulated. While he opposed expanding the law ultimately passed, Gaines remains open to enhanced benefits in future bills.
Montgomery is relieved that lawmakers are addressing the issue, but still laments how soon after giving birth she had to return to work. She thinks new parents need far more than six weeks of protected time off, and feels an abbreviated leave impacted not only her bonding with her child, but her ability to do well by her students when she returned to the classroom.
“It’s so hard to focus on all these 16-year-olds in my class when I have a 2-month-old with someone else,” Montgomery said.
Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, agrees that an early return to work for teachers ultimately harms learning in the classroom. But considering the limited benefits currently in place, she strongly endorsed the new parental leave law, and applauds it for making progress on a system she views as deeply lacking.
“As educators, we very much work in a situation every day where every step in the right direction is a positive,” Morgan said.
Despite the politics and imperfections, Montgomery is happy to see meaningful steps toward a parental leave solution. She is expecting her second child later this year, and worries her family will once again be overwhelmed with financial struggles and uncertainty.
“I don’t know how we are going to do this,” Montgomery said. “But we’re going to have to figure it out because we don’t have another choice.”