Ky Dickens had been a staff director/producer for a small production company for 11 years when she got pregnant. She knew parenthood would bring challenges and stress as well as joy and fulfillment, but she expected to have the time she needed to handle everything that came along with having a baby.
As it tuned out, she was the first worker at the company to become pregnant. And because it was a small firm, she was told the business was not required to give her any maternity leave. After some discussion, she was offered two weeks of paid time away after the birth of her child.
“That became a catalyst that broke my loyalty and productivity for them,” Dickens said in an email interview. “It was terrible. As I entered the world of parents, I learned quickly that I was one of the lucky ones. One in four women go back to work within 10 days of having a baby. Only 15% of Americans have any paid leave at all. Millions go to work while battling cancer or while their spouse or child is in the hospital.
“In short, my paid leave experience opened my eyes to the crisis. I knew that I had to start working on a film about America’s paid family leave crisis. I felt like this story had to be exposed so some of the suffering, gender inequality, and income inequality could finally be addressed.”
The result of Dickens’ labors is the film Zero Weeks, which examines all aspects of the nation’s paid leave problem through the eyes of real people who are struggling because of it.
The film’s title is based on the fact that the United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t offer its residents any weeks of paid family leave. Dickens, a graduate of Vanderbilt University who has directed four feature films, said that fact and others she uncovered as she started working on Zero Weeks shocked her.
“The thing about paid leave is that most people don’t think about it until they need it, and the fact is that at some point, almost everyone will,” she said. “One important fact about paid leave is that this isn’t just parental leave. Paid leave encompasses paid time off for an injury, chronic illness like cancer, or to take time off for an aging parent or family member in need. …
“Almost 50% of Americans say they can’t scrounge up $2,000 even if they turned to their relatives for help, and a third have no savings accounts at all. Given this, how can a person survive if they get a cancer diagnosis, adopt a baby, or need to take care of an injured spouse? People are literally making choices between losing their home or going bankrupt and taking care of their cancer or new baby.”
The film tackles the historical factors that led to the family leave crisis America now faces, as well as some of the political and economic forces that continue to hamper efforts to enact paid leave policies. However, states that have such policies have found that they are helpful to both people and businesses, the film says. Zero Weeks points out that paid family leave is funded through a small payroll deduction from employees, so it operates like an insurance program.
“Millions of dollars of research has been poured into studying paid leave—on both the left and the right side of the aisle,” Dickens said. “Paid leave is proven to reduce the amount of women on food stamps. It’s proven to improve gender and racial inequality. It’s proven to increase happiness and overall health. … Paid leave is the number one thing we can do as a society to dramatically improve the health and income equality for millions.
“It’s great for businesses. In the states where paid leave (laws) have passed, 90% of businesses say the bill either had a positive impact or no impact on their business at all. It’s a no-brainer. … I want to see paid leave become a reality in at least 25 states over the next five years, and I’d like to see it become a federal law in the next seven years. In 2026, if paid leave isn’t the law of the land—I’ll be disappointed.”
Zero Weeks is trying to move individuals and the nation in that direction, not only through sharing hard facts, but also through the heartbreaking stories of real people. Dickens said she was particularly touched by the story of Kesha Scrivner, who was diagnosed with breast cancer after her daughter turned three years old. Scrivner had been with the same job for 19 years, but she didn’t have paid leave, and she couldn’t afford to go without a paycheck.
“She literally battled cancer on her lunch break—leaving to get radiation or chemo and then going back to work,” Dickens said. “Our team spent time with her during a typical workweek. Kesha passed away earlier this year. The tragedy of her passing is the reason we need paid leave. Kesha could have survived her cancer and been here to care for her daughter if our country had sensible paid leave laws.”
Dickens hopes that Scrivner’s legacy will live on, as her story and others shared in Zero Weeks move people to take action. While the film is still on the festival circuit now, she said, some screenings for legislative bodies, corporations, and others have shown the impact it can have on the paid leave debate.
“At our screening in Washington, DC, a Republican congressman stood up after the film and said he did not expect to be crying at the back of the theater listening to the stories in the film,” Dickens said. “He said that after watching it, he wanted to be sure to include bereavement leave in all discussions about paid leave going forward. This was huge.
“The response from both sides of the aisle has been the shock that we’re such an outlier on this issue—but also hope that this is something we can actually fix. This is one issue that over 80% of the public stands behind, and once people realize the facts around paid leave—that it isn’t a tax hike, that small businesses don’t shoulder the cost, that’s it’s insurance just like Social Security, and that it enhances job performance and retention—it becomes even more outrageous to viewers that our country can’t pass a policy.”
Such reactions give Dickens hope that her goal for creation of a national paid leave program will come to pass—for her and her family, as well as all other working families who are bound to need paid leave someday.
“When I first started making the film, only three states had passed paid leave bills (California, New Jersey, Rhode Island),” she said in the email interview. “By the time we were done making the film, the number had doubled to six states. Now, more than 20 states are considering bills.
“The momentum is turning, and this issue is one thing we can change.”