Out of paid time off and uncertain of her options, she went back to work after a miscarriage

Time off from work can help families heal physically and emotionally, a counselor says.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Camille Hawkins, a licensed clinical social worker who has her own private practice counseling families who have had a pregnancy loss and other issues, sits for a portrait on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. Hawkins, who experienced a stillbirth three years ago, testified in favor of a bill that would provide Utah government employees three days of bereavement leave after a miscarriage or stillbirth.

Camille Hawkins remembers that she and her husband were “cautiously optimistic” when she learned that she was expecting in 2018.

The positive pregnancy test came as a surprise, she said, since the Sandy couple had struggled with infertility for years before they adopted their two daughters. And everything was looking good — until Camille Hawkins noticed she wasn’t feeling her baby move as often.

At 31 weeks, the couple learned their soon-to-be daughter had died.

“We were so devastated and in shock,” Hawkins told The Salt Lake Tribune recently.

Hawkins’ “grief journey” over the years has been “windy and up and down and all around and dark and bright,” she said. In late January, she told state lawmakers about her stillbirth, as she encouraged them to support a bill from Republican Sen. Wayne Harper.

Under SB63, Utahns who work for a city, county, the state or a public college or university would receive at least three days of paid bereavement leave after a miscarriage or stillbirth, whether they experienced it themselves, or if their spouse or partner did.

“This is the compassionate thing to do,” said Harper, who represents West Jordan and Taylorsville, at the Jan. 21 legislative hearing.

There isn’t the same guarantee in the private sector, though, and policies vary depending on the company. When 29-year-old Nicole Larson, of North Salt Lake, miscarried last summer, she said she didn’t know what type of leave she could take at her job, since she had run out of her general paid time off.

It would have been helpful, she said, to have something already in place that she could turn to, such as the bereavement leave Harper is proposing.

Time off

When Larson had her miscarriage in July, she wasn’t laid up in bed or unable to move. So, for her — and, she imagines, a lot of other women — it was hard to take time for herself without feeling some type of guilt.

Larson said she went on a Thursday for a dilation and curettage outpatient procedure, or D&C, where uterine lining is removed after a miscarriage. And she was back at work on Friday.

“I physically can work,” Larson remembers thinking, ”so I guess that’s what I’ll do.” But that certainly “wasn’t ideal,” she said.

After Larson had another miscarriage in December, she knew she needed to do something different. She took time off through the Family and Medical Leave Act, which she said helped her recover mentally and emotionally.

“The only time I’d taken leave like that was when I had my son,” Larson said, and it was clear and easy then what leave she could take. So she was surprised when there wasn’t clear guidance for pregnancy loss.

The FMLA provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave and essentially guarantees a person can come back to their job if they need time off for a medical reason, said Jeff Herring, chief human resource officer at the University of Utah and an attorney in labor and employment law. Companies often also have paid time off, sick leave or bereavement leave that employees can use to get paid while dealing with a miscarriage or stillbirth, he said.

The FMLA may not apply, though, to a small business, according to Herring, and employees have to have worked somewhere for a certain amount of time before they are eligible to take this kind of leave.

Hawkins, who is a licensed social worker and counselor with a private practice specializing in reproductive and perinatal mental health, recommends that employers be flexible with time off for a miscarriage or stillbirth, and show empathy for the loss that person is going through.

Hawkins has had clients who go to work after losing a baby, she said, “and they feel completely useless, completely unproductive because their brain cannot focus.”

“Sometimes it kind of seems pointless for them to be there,” Hawkins said.

The three days of bereavement leave that Harper is proposing may not be enough for everyone, she said, “but it is better than zero.”

”And I think it’s a good place to start,” Hawkins said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Camille Hawkins stands for a portrait on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. Hawkins, who experienced a stillbirth three years ago when she was 31 weeks pregnant, testified at a legislative hearing in January about a bill that would provide Utah government employees with three days of bereavement leave after a miscarriage or stillbirth.

Emotional and physical effects

As many as one in four pregnancies end in a miscarriage, many of those in the first few weeks, and for stillbirths, it’s about 1 in 160, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While everyone’s experience is unique, Hawkins said, there are some commonalities.

There’s the physical impact, she said, where some people may miscarry at home and experience days of pain and heavy bleeding. Others could need a cesarean section or a D&C. Women who lose their baby later on in a pregnancy may have to deal with their breast milk coming in, but having no child to feed, she said.

“Then there is the emotional ... and the psychological piece of grieving,” Hawkins said. “And that is something that is even harder to communicate to the outside world.”

Find local support at maternalmentalhealth.utah.gov.

When Hawkins was induced at 31 weeks, she was able to have her family, a doula and a birth photographer with her as she was in labor for more than 30 hours.

“Having all the people there, supporting me and my husband, was so helpful,” she said.

Hawkins and her husband also found a funeral home that helped them spend time with their daughter’s body at home, where they were able to hold her and sing to her.

“The process was definitely emotional and ... definitely traumatic,” Hawkins said, leading her to reach out to support groups and a therapist.

The love that families feel for a baby “does not go away” after a miscarriage or stillbirth, and Hawkins said it’s important to support families as they go through this.

Passing bereavement leave

Harper told his fellow lawmakers that he decided to propose SB63 after learning that this type of bereavement leave was offered in New Zealand and India, but it wasn’t specifically outlined in Utah code.

Harper’s bill received unanimous support from the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee in January. Democratic Sens. Jani Iwamoto, Holladay, and Kathleen Riebe, Cottonwood Heights, shared that they each have miscarried.

“Dealing with having to explain it over and over again … it’s heart-wrenching,” Riebe told her colleagues. This bill recognizes that “this is something that is hard for people to go through,” and providing time off rather than “asking them to carry on, really means a lot to many, many women.”

Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, asked if abortion could be considered a miscarriage or stillbirth in SB63. Harper said it did not, because the bill defines miscarriage as the “spontaneous or accidental loss of a fetus, regardless of gestational age or the duration of the pregnancy.”

Riebe followed that by saying, “Sometimes, families are faced with a very, very tragic scenario with a child that is not going to make it to term,” and they may “decide to abort a baby that they really had no intention of doing, because of the dire straits that the fetus is in.”

“This would not protect them under that situation?” Riebe asked.

The bill’s sponsor said it would not, with the way SB63 is written. Harper told The Salt Lake Tribune in an email Tuesday that he looked into Riebe’s “important question” and decided it “was beyond the narrow limits and purposes of my bill, and it will need to be addressed” in separate legislation.

SB63, meanwhile, passed out of the Senate, and is now set to go through the House.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City talks with Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, during Senate floor time at the Legislative Session, Jan. 25, 2022. Harper proposed a bill during the 2022 session that would provide three days of paid bereavement leave after a miscarriage or stillbirth.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.