Family First?

After years of failed pregnancies, including five miscarriages and a medical determination that she was simply unable to bear children, Kris Garcia should have been elated when she gave birth to a baby boy in May 2002. But Kris didn’t have time to bask in the glow of motherhood. She had to get back to work – less than 72 hours after her son Jacob was born prematurely at just 30 weeks.

As a warehouse manager at a Colorado sporting goods company, Kris was making $10 per hour and was technically employed by a staffing agency who leased workers to big companies. Neither the staffing agency nor the company offered Kris any type of substantial leave, paid or otherwise, to care for herself or her newborn baby.

Kris would spend the next few weeks visiting her four-pound baby boy in the NICU between work shifts, staying in the hospital overnight and sacrificing sleep to be with Jacob before returning to work at 6:00 a.m. each day.

Jacob’s first few months of life were riddled with medical issues, doctor visits, and emergency trips to the hospital. Following the Hayman fire in Pike National Forest which left parts of the neighboring suburbs covered in ash, baby Jacob, whose lungs were still too sensitive and undeveloped to tolerate the smoke, was air lifted to Presbyterian St. Luke’s for a weeklong stay. The frenetic hospital visits and doctor appointments didn’t end there. At nine weeks old, Jacob was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and seizures. Unable to continue working full-time and carrying for her sick child, Kris left her job to devote herself to her son’s in-home therapy and numerous medical needs.

Her time at home was fleeting; the bills had to be paid, so Kris returned to work in short order, this time managing another company’s warehouse on the night shift, from 6:00 p.m. until 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. each day, so that she could be available during the day for Jacob’s numerous therapy and doctor appointments.

In 2003, Kris’s father and younger brother moved in with her, in an attempt to help with Jacob as much as they could. But, between her father’s congestive heart failure and her brother’s erratic behaviors due to an as-of-yet undiagnosed mental health disorder, it was Kris who did most of the supporting.

Although she now had three weeks of combined paid time off (PTO) and sick days, Kris blew through them quickly, taking her son and father to their various appointments. FMLA, which can provide certain employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and job protection per year, was not an option for Kris who found herself in the role of sole breadwinner and primary caregiver for her bona fide family of four, three of whom had discrete medical needs.

In 2005, Kris changed jobs and began working at an auto retailer and service shop. Her work ethic finely honed by this point, she was rapidly promoted from cashier to assistant manager in three short months. Yet, her rise at work was stunted as quickly as it started – her steadfast dedication in the workplace was rewarded with the duties of a manager and 50 plus hours of work per week without a commensurate increase in pay or benefits.

When her father went into kidney failure two years later, in 2007, Kris adopted an even more rigorous schedule to continue her practice as both a full-time employee at work and a full-time caregiver at home. Her days began at 5:00 a.m.  by escorting her dad to dialysis appointments at the VA hospital. Then, she would take Jacob to preschool, pick her dad up from the hospital, feed him and get him settled in at home before heading off to a long day of work.

Although she had accrued over 180 hours of PTO, her employer’s policy of requiring employees to first fill their own shifts before taking any PTO rendered this benefit useless to Kris when she needed it most. Her father’s health was rapidly declining, showing no likelihood of improvement.

In 2008, Kris’s father determined he wanted to return home to El Paso to die. Kris worked fifteen days straight in order to secure a few days off to move her father home.

The following year, in 2009, when her father had quadruple bypass surgery, Kris, having found the only way to utilize her PTO employed a similar method. She worked fourteen days straight in order to snag a few days off to visit her ailing father in Texas before he was admitted to the hospital.

Kris took her father to the hospital on a Sunday night and then got back on the bus to Colorado as she didn’t have enough time off work to see him through his operation. She spoke with him by phone from work on Monday morning and the surgery proceeded on Tuesday. Kris continued to call the hospital for updates. On Wednesday he was comatose, on Thursday his internal organs were dying, and by Friday, she was asked to make a decision about whether to remove him from life support. She made that decision from work, over the phone at 4:00 p. m. Her father died at 5:15 p.m. Kris stayed at work until 10:30 that night because her manager would not agree to fill the remainder of her shift or let her leave.

On May 13, 2010, Kris’s then 26-year old brother, who was living with their mother at the time, shot and killed himself. Kris identified his body at the morgue on a break from work. She managed to cover her shifts for two days to attend his funeral.

Kris eventually terminated her employment in November that year, when her request to take some time off during the holidays to be with her family (her mother and stepfather) was met by a heartless response from her manager who hurled an unsolicited insult about her late brother: “Only losers take themselves out”.

She managed to find work with a cleaning company who kept their employee count and work week hours just low enough to avoid paying any benefits. When Kris separated her shoulder in late 2011, she requested time off for surgery and was promptly fired, one week before Thanksgiving.

Things weren’t good for Kris Garcia, and they hadn’t been for nearly a decade. Finally, that was about to change.

In September 2013, after a lengthy interview process, Kris was hired by a large telecommunications company. In addition to the improvement in pay and benefits, she found support from her direct supervisors in the workplace, a welcome, if unfamiliar situation. Her familiar relationship with loss wasn’t quite done with her yet, but now she had an ally in her employer.

Kris’s stepfather passed away in 2015, and her mother followed in 2018. Kris’s manager sent her home on both occasions. In the weeks leading up to her mother’s death, her employer approved three weeks of intermittent leave with full pay and without requiring her to use any accrued PTO so that Kris could be with her mother before she was overcome by the multiple cancers that had spread throughout her body.

No stranger to bereavement, Kris understood the mechanics of making tough decisions and working through her grief. Now she was addressing the challenge of actually facing her emotions when a loved one died. Luckily, her employer’s free counseling benefits have helped Kris with processing emotions and understanding her own grief.

Kris has an upcoming surgery scheduled in June for which her company will provide her time off and short term disability benefits to ensure she continues to receive a portion of her salary while she’s out of work recovering.

Kris’s experiences with medical issues, motherhood, and loss make her a most credible advocate for 9to5 Colorado, a membership organization with a stated goal of putting women’s issues in the public agenda. Kris and 9to5 advocate for an abundance of important issues, not the least of which is paid family leave in Colorado. As Kris sees it, “people shouldn’t die alone because their family has to work.” And if not all private employers are willing to take care of their employees who naturally will have needs that take them away from work from time-to-time, it’s left to the community to change the system.

Come to GoodCinema on Tuesday, February 19 to learn more about Kris Garcia, 9to5 Colorado, and the Colorado FAMLI Act, which seeks to implement a paid leave insurance program for all Colorado employees who will inevitably face various family and medical issues during their careers.

Author’s Note
: This brief article does not include a number of other medical and familial obstacles Kris Garcia has endured. The intent of the article is to offer the reader a glimpse at the unfair life choices Kris has had to make to juggle work, family, and personal matters over the years. Kris Garcia identifies as “just Kris” but currently uses the feminine pronouns “she” and” her” for certain situations, including this article.

- Laura Fischer