From Alaska to Washington, one couple’s story of paid family leave
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In 2001, Julia Mitzel and Neil Fant met on a boat in Seattle that belonged to some mutual friends. The only thing Julia really knew about Neil was that he was a fisherman. She made a corny joke.
“The first thing I said to the person who would be my husband was ‘Argh,’” she said.
Neil had a crush on her instantly. “I thought, ‘She’s really speaking my language!’ Nah, I thought it was cute,” he said. Julia had just gotten out of a relationship and was not in that headspace, and Neil could tell. So they became friends.
Later, when he left to go fishing in Alaska for a few months, Julia received an email from Neil that confessed: “I have an intense crush on you. Don’t worry, it’ll wear off in a few days. Please just take it as flattery. Have a wonderful summer.”
She still wasn’t ready to date. But before she had a chance to respond, he sent another email asking if they could just not talk about it and move forward. That sounded good to her. “We just kept talking,” Julia said.
Over time, their emails turned romantic. Neil got home, they started dating, got married and had a son. When he was four months old, they decided to move to Alaska, where Neil had spent almost 14 years as a fisherman.
Julia, a nurse practitioner, and took a job in Anchorage working with victims of child abuse. Neil stayed home with their son and studied to become an airplane mechanic.
A couple of years in, they found out Julia was pregnant with twins and realized that she would not get paid maternity leave.
U.S. federal law requires companies to give their workers 12 weeks off a year for family medical situations: having a baby or needing to take care of a sick spouse, for example. But that time is unpaid. Whether workers get paid leave depends on a patchwork of state and local laws.
Ten states have some version of paid family medical leave. Alaska is not one of them.
What Julia got through her job was one bucket of paid time off for either vacation or illness which had to be accrued based on hours worked. So she started putting in extra hours.
“But with my very best attempts, I came up at the end of my pregnancy with only about 21 paid days off,” Julia said.
In October 2008, the twins were born. They were premature, one had a heart condition. His hospital bill alone was $55,000 — just over half their annual income.
“And I really didn’t know how much of that was going to be covered by my insurance,” Julia said. “I was just worried about falling into this big pit of debt.”
So the day after she got home from the hospital they decided Neil had to go back to work. He’d just started working at a regional airline, conducting inspections on planes. He hadn’t accrued any paid time off. He worked the overnight shift, midnight to 8 a.m.
“I’d be driving home, and sometimes I’d be sitting at stoplights, and I would open my eyes and the light would be green,” Neil said. “And there would be someone behind me honking their horn to drive, you know.”
Neil would get home, feed the babies while Julia slept, and then they’d switch off. Meanwhile, Julia was struggling, too.
“I had these charts for a while to remind me of when I fed that baby, when I fed that baby and when I ate, because I couldn’t remember,” she said. “I was really just kind of surviving.”
Also, it was Alaska in October. It was cold, and it was hard to take the babies outside in the snow.
What Julia suspects now is that she was going through some combination of seasonal affective disorder and postpartum depression. At the time, all she knew was that she felt empty.
“I didn’t feel like there was any other reason for me to be alive anymore, except that needed to make this milk for them,” she said. “And I knew that biologically I was the best option to make that milk.”
It was a low point, but they got through it. Eight weeks after their sons were born, Julia went back to work and Neil stayed home with the boys. Then they moved back to Seattle where they started putting the pieces of their lives back together.
Julia and Neil both say that having paid family leave in Alaska would have made a big difference financially and for their family. Because of something that happened to them recently, they say that with confidence.
In April 2021, they were living in Seattle with their three sons. Julia, now in her mid-40s, was working as a nurse practitioner. Neil, in his late 50s, was doing maintenance on ships.
She noticed that he was snoring a lot and having trouble fully opening his mouth, so he went to the doctor. After a string of tests, he was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer. He had a 4-by-7-centimeter tumor right behind his throat.
They jumped into treatment: 60 rounds of radiation and two rounds of chemotherapy. At one point, Neil had to have a feeding tube put in because he couldn’t swallow or eat.
One thing they didn’t have to worry about was money. In Washington state, under a program that started in 2020, workers can get up to 18 weeks of paid time off for family medical situations. Workers and employers pay into the program, like with social security.
Julia thinks everyone should have access to a program like this. “We feel that Social Security is our right, which it is. Why do we not feel this way about family medical leave?” she said.
Cost is one objection. In Washington state, the program is already running low on funds. During the pandemic, way more people than anticipated claimed the leave. Lawmakers have to figure out what to do about that.
Although Neil didn’t work enough hours last year to qualify for the paid leave, Julia was eligible. So she got steady paychecks while she stayed home to be with him.
It made her think about their time in Alaska.
“I grieved for that mother that I was all of those years ago who was so worried about money and affording things,” she said. “If I could have just focused on myself and my children, I think I would have been mentally so much better.”
Neil’s latest MRI scans show no cancer. It’ll be five years before he’s officially declared “cancer-free.”
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