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COVID-19 is showing us, now more than ever before, that we need national paid leave

“My hope is that we realize this: that in a pandemic or not, any one of us can be a diagnosis away from a crisis,” says Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Paid Leave for All, in this op-ed for Know Your Value.
DC council members introduced a paid family leave bill that would create the most progressive system in the country and serve as a model for other cities that might be interested in paid leave.
Tanya Snyder holding her 5 months old, left, Jessica Champagne holding her 3 moths old, and Jamie Davis Smith holding her 10 months old, right, stand in the hallway after dozens of parents with toddlers and people sat through a DC Council hearing to show support for a paid family leave bill at the John A. Wilson Building in D.C. on Oct. 06, 2015.The Washington Post/Getty Images

I’m writing this at 2:00 am.

I spent the day on back-to-back Zoom calls, pausing between meetings to make lunch for my 5-year-old son. I took my laptop to my stoop at 5:00 p.m., typing with one hand, so he could have a few minutes outside. Otherwise, he spends the day on the couch, watching TV, or maybe huddled in a corner with an iPad. I can tell already all the ways he’s backslid. He has forgotten his early reading, taken to mumbling to himself or shouting rather than talking in full sentences. One night, his whole body just started trembling and he told me he was scared. He begs me to sit with him without my phone for even a minute. He holds my face to make sure I’m listening, that I’m fully present. I never am. And sometimes he stops asking for me at all.

It breaks my heart. But I know I’m not the only one filled with anxiety or working late at night. Many of us have been working from home without child care or support for five months now with no end in sight. There’s no camp this year, and many daycares are closed. By some estimates, more than half of them could shutter permanently. And while the White House and Senate Majority Leader seemed to try to use schools as a bargaining chip for relief funds, I believe schools won’t be given the needed resources to safely return in-person in the fall, forcing families into impossible choices. And parents who can work from home face the prospect of another year of remote learning, juggling full-time caretaking and jobs, working through the night. Overflowing inboxes. To-do lists and laundry piles that only grow. Many caretakers, particularly women, who won’t go back to work at all.

And—still many people have it much worse, including those who do not have the option of working from home. Those essential workers, the ones who’ve remained on the job risking exposure in grocery stores and hospitals and factories, were also the ones cut out of recent emergency paid leave protections, including benefits for school or daycare closures. This means that across the country as many as 106 million workers—disproportionately people of color, women, and low-wage workers—were exempted from the guarantee of a single paid sick day in the relief package Congress passed.

What choices do they face? Making rent, or sacrificing their safety? Food on the table, or exposing whole families to the virus? Leaving kids alone at home, or risking their jobs?

I am struggling in my daily life, but I try to imagine that kind of dilemma. Or, I try to imagine having an ill parent at the same time, like many families do. I try to imagine having multiple children. I imagine becoming ill myself.

The pandemic shines a light on how our go-it-alone approach has failed us. The United States is one of the only countries in the world where parents and families face these hurdles. When the pandemic hit, more than 33 million people in this country did not have access to paid sick days; more than 80 percent of workers had no access to paid family leave. It’s not a coincidence we are also facing some of the worst COVID-19 outcomes.

Having the guarantee of paid sick days and leave would mean any one of us would have the ability to take a day to get tested; the time off to quarantine safely or to care for family; the time to recover. We wouldn’t be scrambling and struggling as schools close. We’d have the confidence that workplaces and public spaces would be safer. We’d have the peace of mind that these choices wouldn’t ruin us and the people we love.

My hope is that we realize this: that in a pandemic or not, any one of us can be a diagnosis away from a crisis. That we realize the critical role of care in our society. That Congress closes the loopholes in relief legislation that could let over a hundred million workers fall through the cracks. That we pass a permanent national paid leave policy that protects every working person, and in the process, our public health, our economy, our collective recovery.

We will keep working until we have paid leave for all.

Dawn Huckelbridge is director of Paid Leave for All. Follow her on Twitter @dhuckelbridge.