NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Affordable health care and family leave are the "forefront" issues for Raya Kirby.
Balancing her 4-month-old daughter on her hip, told the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women on Tuesday how she accumulated sick and personal time by not taking any time off for 10 months and her family stocked away every penny, to ensure they could pay bills during her maternity leave.
Still, half of her 12 weeks out was unpaid, stressing the finances of the family of four. And it wasn't enough time to spend with her newborn.
"You don't sell puppies and kittens until their 8 weeks old because you don't want to separate them from their parents yet you require mothers to return back to work sometimes immediately after having a child because there's no income," she said.
Stories like Kirby's are what the commission wants to hear so they can turn needs into legislation. Created in 1998, the commission is comprised of 19 volunteer members appointed by various executive and legislative agencies. It works with local commissions, holds listening sessions around the state and hosts an advocacy day in Boston to bring issues of importance of women to the State House.
A listening session brought four of the commissioners — Vice Chairwoman Margot Parrot of Athol, Penny Blaisdell of Marblehead, Becca Glenn of Waltham and Sara G. Schnorr of Holliston — to the Berkshires. Along with Director Jill Ashton and Outreach Coordinator Kelly Lynch, they heard testimony from a half-dozen or so area women at City Hall and were greeted by Mayor Richard Alcombright.
The top issues: Health care, child care and maternity, poverty and transportation. All topics that are to a large extent inextricably intertwined.
Donna Morelli, an attorney with Community Legal Aid's family law unit, citing a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, said parents pay more for child care per year in Massachusetts than for a year at a four-year college.
Bay State parents of more than one child pay out an average of $30,000 on child care for categories of infant and 4-year-olds. The third category is school age, which isn't much less.
"The lack of affordable child care affects all parents. It has a significant economic impact on clients I represent," Morelli said, most of whom are trying to escape some form of domestic violence and are financially stressed. They are overwhelmingly mothers, with an average of 1.2 children, and most of them work. Nearly half receive no government benefits.
Their average income is $271 per week, or $1,166 per month, and even with an average $150 a month in child support, can barely cover child-care costs.
"Even with child support, these single mothers still cannot afford child care without using a huge part of their weekly income," she said. Child care centers average $17,083 a year. "That is $320 per week, which is $50 higher than the income of the mothers I represent. ...
"The clients I represent still cannot afford these costs without depriving themselves and their children of necessities."
Michelle Rubin, licensed child care provider, traveled from Greenfield to echo those statements.
"If parents can find child care, they usually can't afford it," she said. "There are more than 25,000 children on the waitlist right now waiting for vouchers. ...
"If parents are unable to work the entire family suffers ... mothers should not have to choose between taking care of a newborn and their jobs."
She told of her own situation of how she had to return to work two weeks after her last child was born. Vouchers were no longer really covering the cost for child care, she said, and lack of transportation for parents was a serious issue.
Rachel Branch of North Adams offered the perspective of older women, and the difficulties they can face after years of societal and financial limitations. After years of working, she was subsisting on a stagnant Social Security income while costs continued to rise around her; taxes went up but her home value went down.
"As a woman, throughout my working life I was paid three, four, five or more times less than men," she told the commission. "This resulted in no way to save, no way to prepare for retirement among many other detriments for working women ...
"Because at 74 1/2, as a result of all these circumstances, I have been impoverished, needing fuel assistance, needing food assistance, and needing my Medicare Part B paid."
She urged the commission to "demand responsiveness from our legislators and try to stop those men who hold up a patriarchal system to keep women in their place."
State Rep. Gailanne Cariddi reminded the commission of the loss of North Adams Regional Hospital, which has had an impact on the entire community.
"While the campus is coming back with various types of services, we want to make sure rural Massachusetts and areas like ours have adequate services for women and especially for women of child-bearing age," she said. "There's no maternity within 25 miles."
There needs to be, Cariddi said, parity across the state for rural and urban areas. City Councilor Lisa Blackmer also pointed to limited access to affordable, family planning services and Branch said the lack of health care access was a serious issue for elderly women.
The lack of health care resources includes those for substance abuse, several women said. Tara Jacobs, a former commissioner, said there weren't enough resources for teens and women and school systems were being held to find solutions.
"The opioid issue is not necessarily a women's issue specifically," said the commission's Berkshire County Chairwoman Gillette Conner. "But certainly in our county, we're seeing a disproportionate impact on women ... ."
Substance abuse is affecting families financially because the woman may be the only breadwinner, or she may be a caregiver, and if she tries to get treatment, who takes care of her children?
"We would be very much behind some sort of legislation that begins to eat away at this issue and how we support women in this crisis," said Conner.
"Every session I've attended we've had at least one person speak out about the opiod crisis," said Parrot, recalling a session with grandmothers explaining how they were raising their grandchildren because of parental addiction. "It's definitely on everyone's mind. ... It strikes women in many different ways."
Schnorr asked if there was a legislative way to pressure some of the "successful and wealthy" health systems in the eastern part of the state to do more outreach in rural areas as a condition to their expansions.
Blaisdell, a patient advocate and member of a Dana Farber Cancer Institute advisory council, said that institution was trying to find ways to make its services more accessible, and understood some of the transportation difficulties. She promised to bring back the concerns she had heard to Dana Farber and her contacts at Health Care for All.
The lack of affordable public transportation also plays a critical role in a wide range of everyday needs for Northern Berkshire residents for just about anything. The B Bus runs during the day only and a cab can cost $20 to $25 one way to Pittsfield.
"I would like people to think about transportation and how it equals access to education, it's access to justice, it's access to health care, it's access to child care and it's access to appointments," said Buffy Lord, a local attorney. "With the economies of scale and the cost to people, it's almost impossible."
The Berkshire County Commission on the Status of Women is seeking a North Berkshire representative. You can find an application form for the volunteer position through this link.
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