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Many pregnant workers and new mothers were left out of COVID-19 aid

“It was just a lot of stress. It’s like: Do I sacrifice us being behind on bills, or do I sacrifice the both of our health?”

Teneema Tibbs (right) picks up her son, James, from his teacher, Mirjeta Teneqexhiu at the Little Learners Literacy Academy in South Philadelphia.
Teneema Tibbs (right) picks up her son, James, from his teacher, Mirjeta Teneqexhiu at the Little Learners Literacy Academy in South Philadelphia.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Teneema Tibbs lost her job at a Darby day-care center in February 2020, the month before the coronavirus pandemic hit. She was five months pregnant and about to become a single mom.

She looked at her protruding belly and thought, “No one will hire me now.”

Tibbs searched for a new job, but the pandemic shut down the child-care industry. She couldn’t find work.

Tibbs was one of many pregnant people left out of the safety nets put in place during the pandemic, an exclusion that thrust many new mothers into financial instability when they were at their most vulnerable.

When the federal government created its pandemic unemployment assistance program, it stipulated COVID-19 must have specifically caused a person to lose their job. These restrictions excluded many pregnant people and new mothers like Tibbs who lost work before March 2020.

Stimulus checks were initially based on the previous year’s tax returns, meaning for most of the last year, new parents could not yet receive a full payment that included their babies.

“Systems don’t appreciate the complexities of people’s lives and households.”

Susanna Greenberg, the managing attorney at the HELP: MLP at Philadelphia Nurse-Family Partnership.

If pregnant workers filed for unemployment prior to the pandemic and did not receive it, they were forced to rely on a now-backlogged state system, a months-long wait that forced some new mothers and their babies into poverty.

» READ MORE: Thousands of Pennsylvanians are still waiting for jobless benefits. Advocates want the state to ‘pay benefits now.’

“Systems don’t appreciate the complexities of people’s lives and households,” said Susanna Greenberg, a managing attorney at HELP: MLP who provides free legal services to mothers and babies through the Philadelphia Nurse-Family Partnership and Mabel Morris Family Home Visit Program. “People who had a baby this last year are the ones constantly we see struggling the most.”

Lawyers say pregnancy discrimination is still common, even though there are federal and state laws intended to protect against it. There is also no federal paid maternity-leave policy, so employers are not obligated to offer paid time off after delivering a baby.

Many of Greenberg’s clients work in high-exposure and hard-hit service industries such as home health aides, day-care workers, nursing assistants, or restaurant servers. Once these women were ready to return to work during the pandemic, child care proved elusive.

Other pregnant women echoed Tibbs’ story of struggling during the pandemic and early motherhood without the same assistance other jobless workers could receive.

A pregnant woman living in North Philly felt forced to quit her restaurant job before the pandemic hit because her employer made her lift heavy boxes. She fought for unemployment compensation, eventually winning her case, but spent the first six months of the pandemic with a new baby and no benefits.

Another pregnant woman shared how she worked extra hours during the pandemic as a certified nursing assistant in her last trimester to save money for unpaid maternity leave. Soon after delivering, she felt forced to return to work because she had been denied unemployment insurance.

“The general consequence is that people are putting themselves in danger when they shouldn’t have to,” said Margaret Zhang, an attorney at the Philadelphia-based Women’s Law Project. “People have been ignoring pregnancy and maternal health issues for years.”

Coronavirus-related shutdowns have also disproportionately affected women of color who are more likely to work in frontline jobs and be the primary caretaker of their families. Experts have called this the nation’s first female recession, bringing a renewed focus on the existing inequalities for women in the workplace.

» READ MORE: Job or kids? One in three working moms forced to choose as pandemic enters Year Two.

President Joe Biden has introduced his American Families Plan, a $1.8 trillion investment in families by establishing a universal preschool policy and paid family and medical leave program. In July, millions of families will start receiving a child cash benefit, a monthly payment for those who qualify of $250 per child 6 or older and $300 per child younger than 6.

If programs like this were implemented last year, experts said, they would have helped pregnant people who were left on the edges of aid.

For Tibbs, one of Greenberg’s clients, it has been traumatic to see her steady income quickly vanish, forcing her to rely on food stamps and the generosity of strangers to get through pregnancy, a complicated birth, and her first year of motherhood.

“I feel like one minute I’m getting there, I am passed this hurdle,” said Tibbs, 30 of Southwest Philadelphia, “and then something else happens.”

‘Pushed off a cliff’

In April of last year, when she was seven months pregnant, Tibbs’ blood pressure skyrocketed. She rushed to the hospital, where she learned her pregnancy had become high-risk.

She had undiagnosed severe preeclampsia and nearly died. Doctors performed an emergency C-section to safely deliver her baby, James, on April 11.

James was born at 29 weeks, weighing 2 pounds and 5 ounces. He needed to be hospitalized for two months. Tibbs cried knowing she couldn’t hold him. Once he was finally home, he kept getting sick and Tibbs had to take him back to the hospital.

Erin Blair, a nurse liaison at the Philadelphia Nurse-Family Partnership and administrator of the emergency fund, has seen the ways financial instability severely affects maternal and infant health.

Robust health care and support for women who are pregnant do not always happen, especially for Black women.

In Philadelphia, a recent report found that Black women accounted for 43% of births from 2013 to 2018, but 73% of the pregnancy-related deaths.

“I have seen pregnant and parenting women pushed off a cliff over and over and over again by the system,” said Blair. “If we really care about moms and babies, we need to show it through meaningful, low-barrier supports available to everyone that needs them.”

“It’s like do I sacrifice us being behind on bills, or do I sacrifice the both of our health?”

Teneema Tibbs on the stress of becoming a single mother during the pandemic

Tibbs believes her financial insecurity from losing her job is part of what caused her to almost die during childbirth. She wasn’t sure how to pay for her $800 monthly rent, groceries, diapers, and everything else her baby would need. She was scared of what would happen next.

Tibbs received WIC benefits, the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, which allowed her to buy specific items like fruits and vegetables, milk, canned beans, yogurt, and peanut butter. She also utilized Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program aid, commonly known as food stamps, which initially amounted to $101 month in vouchers.

Tibbs was also eligible for Medicaid and could continue her prenatal care. But because of coronavirus health precautions her last prenatal appointment was held virtually.

“I had no income. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” Tibbs said. “It was just a lot of stress. It’s like: Do I sacrifice us being behind on bills, or do I sacrifice the both of our health?”

‘Between the gaps’

The pandemic did not cause Tibbs to originally lose her job, but it was the reason she could not find a new one.

Once James was home, her baby’s pediatrician recommended he stay out of day care while his fragile immune system built up. Tibbs looked for remote work.

She had also applied for regular unemployment compensation, but the case has been held up for more than a year in dispute because of a disagreement over her dismissal with her employer. She was not eligible for federal pandemic unemployment insurance because COVID-19 did not cause her to lose her job.

Throughout the last year, Tibbs said she has applied for more than 150 jobs.

“It is unfortunately easy for pregnant people and newborns to fall between the gaps,” said Jessica Mason, senior policy analyst at the National Partnership for Women and Families. “Bills keep piling up while you’re working through your dispute with the unemployment office or court case. People need money now, not after all these legal disputes are resolved.”

The city’s Emergency Housing Protection Act, a package of bills to protect Philadelphia renters, managed to avoid leaving out people like Greenberg’s clients because it included people who were not employed before the pandemic hit, but could not find new work. This was a key recognition, Greenberg said, “that facing the lack of employment opportunities in the past year was itself a COVID-related hardship.”

Once Tibbs felt safe putting James into day care, she expanded her search. Finally, she found a job.

The day care that had space for James offered to hire her as a child-care teacher. It’s more pay than her pre-pandemic job.

James turned 1 last month and still has some developmental delays. He’s working on saying words and goes to physical and occupational therapy. He is a fast crawler and has learned to clap his hands. Tibbs calls him “nugget” and catches him trying to charm others, always smiling at women when they pass.

She loves being a mother. But after this experience, Tibbs said, she does not want to become pregnant again.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at