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Heather Wallace: Paid family leave would have made all the difference

When my daughter was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 1997, she was three years old. As a single mom, I was also caring for infant twins and working full-time to support our family. Without paid family and medical leave, our medical crisis quickly became a financial one as well. Not having paid leave devastated us not only financially, it meant that I couldn’t be there when my children needed me most.

Twenty years later, very little has changed for Americans facing this kind of crisis – most are still left trying to make impossible choices between being there for loved ones and making ends meet. Washington’s new paid family and medical leave law, which will provide up to 16 weeks of paid leave each year, will be life-changing for the families lucky enough to live in our state. But access to paid leave shouldn’t depend on where you live.

Within a few weeks of my daughter’s diagnosis, I had used all of my sick and vacation leave. I relocated to Seattle so that I could take my daughter to the children’s hospital and commuted 300 miles every week – working two 16-hour days and one 8-hour day each week for more than a year.

My family lived in a Ronald McDonald house while I paid for our mortgage back home.

Between chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and a host of other expensive procedures, my daughter had quickly maxed out her lifetime benefit with our insurance plan (this was pre-Affordable Care Act) and ended up on Medicaid. A year after she was diagnosed with kidney cancer, the doctor gave us a terminal diagnosis. She had relapsed, lost her kidneys, and was going to be on dialysis.

I wanted to be with my daughter every moment, but I had to work to pay the bills and support all four of us.

I took a huge pay cut to take a job so that I could work nights near the hospital while my sister stayed home with the kids. In the morning, I would pick up my daughter and take her to the hospital, where I would sleep in the dialysis room.

The pay cut meant I lost my insurance benefits and paid leave. We lost our house. I took another part-time day job so that I could work on the days when my daughter didn’t have dialysis. I was working nights and days and spending 26 hours a week in the hospital.

After three and a half years, Ashley received a kidney transplant and we moved back to Eastern Washington. A few months later, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and we moved back to Seattle.

By this time, I couldn’t make ends meet or even function from lack of sleep or stress. I had no paid leave and we were adding medical debt and everyday living expenses to credit cards. I was forced to file for medical bankruptcy.

At no point did I have paid leave so that I could afford to spend time with my terminally ill child.

My daughter is persistent and resilient – she did well after a transplant and got through her thyroid cancer treatment. We finally moved home. Twenty years later, I’m finally recovering financially and building a safety net.

When a child is ill, their parents should be able to focus on taking care of their child. No one should have to wonder how they will balance work and the survival of their child – whether they should be at their child’s bedside or at work to put food on the table.

Without paid family leave, families are forced to make these impossible decisions every day. Things are changing here in Washington state. But just 20 miles east in Idaho, there is still no access to paid family and medical leave. Only four other states and D.C. have passed this kind of law.

It shouldn’t matter where you live. We need a real plan nationally, not just a shortcut that means borrowing against retirement. Everyone should be able to spend time with their sick children or family member without losing their home, filing for bankruptcy, or struggling to keep food on the table. Everyone deserves the chance to help care for an aging parent when the time comes. That’s why legislators in Congress have introduced the FAMILY Act, a law that would establish paid family and medical leave across the country.

My family’s story is all too common here in the U.S. Policymakers in our nation’s capital should follow the lead of states like Washington and make paid family and medical leave a reality for all Americans.

Heather Wallace lives in Spokane and is a member of MomsRising.

 

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