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Without paid leave, Americans like me are draining their savings

Covid-19 was a wake-up call about our systemic failures, and Congress has a clear path to answering that call by finally passing a national paid leave policy.
Image: Senate Takes Up Coronavirus Relief Bill Passed By House
The U.S. Capitol is reflected on the side of a parked ambulance, on March 16, 2020.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

Congress is now considering a bill that would mandate four weeks of paid family and medical leave for workers — down from the 12 weeks House Democrats originally proposed. For people like me who have been affected emotionally, physically and financially by the Covid-19 pandemic, we know that four weeks is less than we need. But it’s a critical and lifesaving first step.

On March 17, 2020,  the hospital gift shop I managed closed because of the pandemic lockdown. I fully expected that I’d be back at work in a few weeks. And I was anxious to go back — I wasn’t sure if I could afford more than a few weeks without pay. But nine days later, my financial worries took a backseat as all my focus went to fighting my own case of Covid. 

Congress must pass paid family and medical leave for all Americans. There is no building back better without it.

I spent weeks thinking I was going to die. I was too weak to walk and too weak to eat. I threw up bile because the nausea was constant, even though my stomach was empty. I kept hoping that at some point, I’d feel like myself again. I’m now more than 20 months out from when I first contracted Covid, and I still have a hard time breathing. I have completely depleted the savings I had stored up. I have no idea how I’ll ever go back to a job like the one I had before the pandemic, but I can’t afford to be home sick forever either.

And sadly, I’m far from alone. Because the United States is one of the few countries without a federal paid leave policy, many Americans who contracted Covid on the job have had to go into debt or spend all their savings while they attempt to reclaim their health or cope with a loved one’s death, illness or the birth of a child. 

As we grapple with the effects of the summer’s delta variant surge and look to chart a path toward economic recovery, Congress must pass paid family and medical leave for all Americans. There is no building back better without it. 

I would hope that every lawmaker understands this. But I’m watching in horror as lawmakers seem to make light of people’s pain and illness. Hearing about the proposed 12-week plan in the spring to reading that it was dropped from President Joe Biden’s framework in October to then seeing that it was added back in — minus eight weeks — to now being faced with the realization that even four weeks of paid leave may not stay in the plan has left me anxious and infuriated. 

I am still not strong enough to travel. But Covid survivors and other advocates of paid leave together met with our lawmakers to remind them that a bill without paid leave would be a slap in the face to the millions of families who deserve a lifeline when a crisis hits. We echoed that same message across the country as part of a bus tour put together by the organization Paid Leave for All.

Many workers faced unimaginable choices: to sacrifice their health, their safety or their paycheck.

Imagine if we had been prepared before the pandemic, and had policies in place to protect workers. It would have helped countless Americans devastated by the pandemic, including hundreds of members of the nonprofit group I work for, Covid Survivors for Change, a national organization working to support families impacted by the pandemic and organize survivors to demand policies that will prevent a crisis like this from ever happening again. 

If we’d had paid leave, in West Virginia, Jerri would have been able to take time away from her job as a teacher to take care of her children and grieve after her husband, a police officer for more than 20 years, died of Covid. Or in Illinois, Jennifer, a single mom, would have been able to take time off to tend to her serious symptoms, which have lingered for more than eight months now. Or Esmeralda’s sister in Texas, who died from Covid at 39 years old just days after giving birth and whose husband would have paid leave now to care for their new baby. These are the stories I hear during the weekly remote support groups I run for the organization. 

We know national paid leave would have saved lives. The emergency paid leave policy that went into effect last April  as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act  is estimated to have prevented more than 15,000 new Covid cases per day. It was limited and temporary, ending Dec. 31. I got sick weeks before the policy went into effect, so I never qualified. But the leave kept countless other Americans afloat — able to hold onto their wages and benefits as they quarantined, recovered and cared for their families. 

However, many did end up needlessly losing their loved ones to Covid. Many of them were essential workers without basic protections like paid leave — protections that nearly every other country in the world provides its workers, in times of public health crises or not. Many workers faced unimaginable choices: to sacrifice their health, their safety or their paycheck. 

Like many other Covid survivors, I am still struggling financially. I’m surviving on the savings I have left and the part-time income I’m able to make from home.

A national paid leave policy is a common-sense solution. It’s a critical tool for public health, and for achieving long-term economic growth and racial and gender equity. Outside of a public health crisis, it would mean no one would be forced to miss a baby’s first smile. No one would be forced to work through injury or illness. 

Survivors share their stories of struggle and loss so our elected leaders cannot look away. We talk about  the sacrifices of essential workers and memorialize the lives and the deaths, but how should we truly honor them? With meaningful policy change.  

America can no longer ignore the systemic failures that got us here. The pandemic should be a wake-up call, and Congress has a clear path to answer that call by finally passing a national paid leave policy.

Doing so would honor those who needed paid leave and lost so much because they went without it. We owe it to them to build something new, something better for all workers.