Diocesan News

Paid Family Leave Bill for Parents of Stillborn Babies Clears First Hurdle

Cristian Ortiz and his partner Crystal Rivera have helped each other cope with the devastating loss of their baby daughter. (Photo: Courtesy of Cristian Ortiz)

ALBANY — Parents who suffer the heartbreaking loss of the stillborn birth of their babies would be allowed to take time off from work the same as other parents do if a bill making its way through the New York State Legislature is adopted.

The bill, which would add stillbirth to the state’s existing Paid Family Leave law, was passed unanimously by the State Senate on March 9. It now heads to the State Assembly.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Cristian Ortiz, the father of a stillborn baby who was one of several parents who traveled to Albany on Advocacy Day, Jan. 30, to speak to lawmakers and push for the bill’s passage. He and his partner, Crystal Rivera, lost their baby girl Valentina on Dec. 8, 2021.

The fact that the bill won unanimous approval in the Senate is significant, he said. “It was a bipartisan bill, which is important to note,” added Ortiz, who is employed by DeSales Media Group, the ministry that produces The Tablet. 

“But we still have a ways to go,” said Ortiz, who pointed out that passage in the Assembly is far from certain. And even if it wins Assembly approval, Gov. Kathy Hochul would have to sign it in order for it to be added to the existing law.

The New York State Catholic Conference issued a statement urging the Assembly to take up the bill. 

“The physical and mental anguish experienced by mothers, fathers, and their families as they mourn the death of a child is indescribable. Time is the only thing that can begin to heal such a loss, yet stillbirth has not been a qualifying condition for family leave in New York,” said Kristen Curran, director of government relations.

Under current state law, which has been on the books since 2018, employees can take up to 12 weeks of paid time off for these reasons: to care for a new child, look after a family member with a serious health condition, or assist loved ones when a family member is deployed abroad on active military service. 

The days off can be taken all at once or in increments. Employees taking Paid Family Leave receive 67% of their average weekly wage.

While the proposed expansion of the law would give parents of stillborn babies time to grieve their devastating loss in private, Ortiz said grief is not really what the new bill is about. 

“This is a woman’s health issue. And women being asked to go back to work after three days because their child was born not breathing is not fair. There are complications, like preeclampsia, high blood pressure, and other conditions, that can happen whether you give birth to a live child or a dead child,” he said.

“Clinically speaking, six to 12 weeks is what every doctor would give any patient that has just given birth,” Ortiz added.

His partner Crystal, whose doctor had prescribed bed rest after the stillbirth of her daughter, instead had to return to work after three days, he explained. “So Crystal and I had to go through and burn all of our sick days and all of our vacation days because the only other alternative was to go on paid disability, which pays a whopping $170 a week. That doesn’t even buy groceries.” 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 21,000 babies a year are stillborn in the U.S. — approximately one in every 175 births. In New York State, there are 1,400 stillbirths a year.

It is more common among black women, women 35 years of age and older, cigarette smokers, women who suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, or obesity, and have had a previous stillborn tragedy. 

Ortiz recounted the heartbreak he and Crystal experienced. It had been a normal pregnancy — right up until the end. 

“When you have a baby shower, when you have eight months of expectation, and you’re told your child is doing OK and then you’re told there’s no heartbeat when you show up for delivery, it’s a different animal,” he recalled.

Ortiz added that after Crystal gave birth to their daughter, he had to go out to his car and remove the baby seat he had installed so that his devastated partner wouldn’t have to see it when she was released from the hospital.

On Oct. 15, Ortiz and his partner took part in the Empty Stroller March in Washington, D.C., a demonstration aimed at improving pregnancy outcomes for parents. The empty strollers that participants pushed along the protest route symbolized the lost children.

The couple is also forming a new group, Valentina’s Voice, a nonprofit to assist parents of stillborn babies.