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Lauren & her daughter Stephanie


(Lauren's daugher Stephanie pictured below)

The first time Lauren Agoratus needed leave was 1992, when her daughter Stephanie was born with what’s known as a solitary dysplastic kidney, functioning only at 15%. Lauren had accumulated sick time and vacation over the years; she used it all. The second time she needed leave came the following year. Lauren and her husband had tried using an in-home day care with just a few other children, but Stephanie kept getting sick; the doctor said she needed to build up her immune system before she could be around other children. By now, the Family and Medical Leave Act had passed, so Lauren didn’t have to worry about her job – but the time was unpaid. “We were extremely frugal,” Lauren said, “no debts – no student loans or credit cards, no cable TV. Even so, that second leave put us $20,000 in debt, which was a lot back in 1993. We almost lost our home.” For the first time, the family took out a credit card and put their mortgage on it. “It took us several years to recoup.”

Lauren became an advocate for families of children with special health care needs and now works as the New Jersey Coordinator of Family Voices. She also became an advocate for paid family leave in New Jersey. “Families already have to deal with medical expenses,” she said. “Couple that with the loss of income from an unpaid leave, it’s the perfect storm.”

Family leave insurance went into effect in New Jersey in 2009. Two years later, Stephanie, then age 19, needed a kidney transplant. Lauren describes that leave as “a totally different ball game. This time I had income coming in. It was not at all like the first time. We didn’t take years to recover. We didn’t almost lose our home.” Stephanie celebrated her graduation and her prom in the hospital with both parents present. Thanks to paid leave, her father was able to take time as well as her mother. Stephanie experienced some complications that required trips to a hospital in Philadelphia. “We alternated leaves,” Lauren said. “I took mine all at once when she had the transplant. He took intermittent leave so he could take her back and forth to Philly.” Lauren stressed how important it was that both parents could participate. “My daughter also has autism. We tag team when we talk to medical professionals – one talks to the doctor while the other is caring for her.” Stephanie is now attending Mercer County Community College with the help of a nurse. “Paid leave was a huge relief for me and for the people I work with,” Lauren said. “It’s such a different scenario. You know you’re not just going to be able to take care of the person, which is huge in itself, but you also know you’re going to be financially stable.”