The start of a new year is supposed to be about new beginnings, but for me this year has been a reminder of someone I will always be missing. That’s because this year marks nine years since my son Da’Reil passed away after a long battle with brain cancer. He was 19 years old.
I wish that I had been able to spend more time with him as he fought cancer, but the childcare company where I was working at the time didn’t offer paid or unpaid leave. Since neither my husband nor I could take any time off, we both worked through two years of Da’Reil’s surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation.
The emotional toll of watching your child face cancer is heartbreaking enough. But for us, having to contend with medical bills on top of everything else was crushing. Even with financial assistance from Supplemental Security Income and support from the hospital, our family was devastated. We went days without water because money was so tight. My older sons had to drop out of school to work and support the family and help us look after Da’Reil. Taking unpaid leave to be with Da’Reil wasn’t a possibility for us.
When Da’Reil passed away, I wished more than anything that I’d been able to spend more time with him during his final months. That’s time I’ll never get back.
No mother should be in the position I was in while Da’Reil was sick. And the good news for those of us living on the west coast is that Washington state will soon join California in implementing a paid family and medical leave program. Oregon is getting closer to passing a similar law and hopefully will in the next few months.
In Washington, on Jan. 1, workers and some businesses across the state began contributing to a statewide insurance pool to fund a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program, which will begin paying out benefits the following year on January 1, 2020. The new program guarantees up to 16 weeks of combined paid family and medical leave per year, whether it’s to care for an ill child or family member, recover from serious illness, or look after a new baby.
The average worker contributes just over $2 per week -- less than it costs to buy a cup of coffee. An affordable price to pay for the certainty that you won’t have to choose between putting food on the table and caring for your family.
But this isn’t the case for families in Oregon where too many workers are still forced to make this impossible choice without access to paid leave. What’s more, 67 percent of Oregon workers don't even have access to unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
Fortunately, support is growing for a comprehensive paid leave proposal moving in Oregon, known as the Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FAMLI) Equity Act. A strong FAMLI Equity Act would provide a meaningful amount of time to give or get care, cover all working Oregonians, protect employees from retaliation, and be sustainably funded through a social insurance pool. Families are counting on the Oregon Legislature to make paid family and medical leave a priority this legislative session.
I’m a childcare provider by profession. Taking care of other people’s children is what I’ve been doing for more than 20 years. So I understand both personally and professionally the time and effort it takes to care for a child, even a healthy one. Families with sick children need time above all else -- to be able to go to doctor’s appointments and hospital visits without being afraid of losing their jobs.
I wish I could have been at every appointment with my son, but our financial situation made it impossible. I can’t even imagine how much paid family and medical leave would have helped my family. If the program had been in place when Da’Reil was sick, I could have focused on what mattered most: my son. I feel hopeful knowing that paid leave will make such a difference for other mothers and families across Washington, but I will not stop speaking out until all Americans -- including Oregonians -- can have the peace of mind that comes with paid family and medical leave.
Ruthie Guidry is a Seattle resident and member of MomsRising.