Last week was historic for hundreds of thousands of working families. The U.S. Department of Labor finalized President Obama’s Executive Order on paid sick days, ensuring access to paid sick leave for over one million people working on federal contracts. As a former federal contractor without the ability to earn paid sick days, I know firsthand what an incredible impact this will have on families’ economic security and peace of mind.
Last year, I left my job as a federal employee to become a federal contractor when I was six months pregnant with my third child. I saved all of my vacation time for when my child was born, which only amounted to five paid days off. I went back to work after only eight weeks off – an unpaid maternity leave. My husband was only able to take a few days off from work because we knew he should save his extra days off for if/when one of our other children got sick after I returned to work, having used all of my vacation time.
Not long after I returned to work, I found out that my daughter needed extra therapy to address some issues she was having, which required appointments each week. In addition, there was the variable of unpredictable illnesses and unforeseen school and daycare closures that quickly ate up any chance for saving my PTO. I was constantly stressed about if I could take a day off when someone seemed like they were getting sick and wouldn’t be able to go to daycare or school.
When I was a federal employee for almost 8 years prior, I took two other unpaid maternity leaves and used all of my saved leave during those pregnancies, the first couple of weeks of maternity leave, and in the difficult months after returning to work. Throw in an immediate family death, a grandparent death, and an emergency surgery amidst those same years, plus an unforeseen medical condition requiring rehabilitation, and you can see how easily any/all paid sick days off were used up very quickly.
Tonight, I made a mistake. I made the mistake of opening up comments on a social media post about the Department of Labor ensuring paid sick leave for federal contractors. What I saw there was an argument about how it isn’t right that others should have to pay for someone to stay home.
So what is needed to justify paid sick days? Does the stomach flu count? Because let me tell you…when I showed up to work last year after only just finishing throwing up less than 8 hours prior and was still feverish...my coworkers did NOT appreciate that. They could not understand why I was coming to work. But I had no leave left. I had just used the only PTO day I had on taking care of one of my three sick (throwing up) children. I cried as I had to send my oldest to school, knowing she wasn’t well “enough” to go back. I knew that I was breaking the school rules and that she was a mess, but I couldn’t stay home with her another day. The other two probably shouldn’t have gone to daycare either, but what choice did I have? By daycare and school standards, it is very clear what is sick “enough” to warrant staying home. But that doesn’t match up with what many workplaces say. Unfortunately, germs and illness don’t stay on schedule with how many PTO days I have available.
Who benefits when I have to push myself and go to work sick (and infect more people) so that I don’t lose a day’s pay – or hours toward more earned vacation/PTO time? Should my children have to go to school or daycare sick because I must return to work?
I know I am not alone when I say that I often feel like having children is seen as a burden in the workplace and something to be ashamed of since I am also a working mother – that I shouldn’t ask for “special privileges” like paid sick days to wipe up puke and care for my sick children while I myself am suffering the same illness.
While others might enjoy vacations with their paid time off, I use virtually every hour I get to care for and raise my children. Because I work and use virtually all of my PTO on sick days, I miss out on so many of my children’s activities. I’d love to have a day off just to go on a field trip with my children or to be able witness one of their school accomplishments.
There is also a lot of talk about the need for self-care. To me, that would simply mean that once in a great while, when I am sick, that I get to actually stay in bed and get the rest I need to get rid of that illness instead of dragging it through my entire office. I’d like to take time to be able to go to the dentist for the first time in three years and take care of the tooth that has been bothering me – the tooth that will eventually end up costing way more to me and to insurance companies – all because I couldn’t take time off to take care of it on a more preventative front. Sometimes people tell me that I need to take care of myself. I wish I could. And I wish that I could just take care of my family the way that they deserve, too. And I wish that I could be the best employee, too.
In the end, I chose to leave full-time employment as a federal contractor because I couldn’t strike a sustainable balance between family and work demands. If I had been given paid sick days, like the Department of Labor just mandated, the balance might have been more feasible. It certainly would have been an important start.
Katy is a MomsRising member in Minnesota.