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Caring for My Son Has Meant Missing Too Many Paychecks

I have six amazing kids, one of whom has special needs and complex medical challenges. My husband has a chronic health condition, my uncle struggles with his mental health and my grandmother is elderly and homebound. Being there for my family is more important to me than anything. But like the vast majority of workers in West Virginia and the United States, I don’t have access to paid family and medical leave. As a result, over and over again I’ve had to choose between my paycheck and caring for my loved ones when they needed me most.

I have a master’s degree and used to work a full-time job. But when we adopted my son Gavin, who needs ongoing medical care, I didn’t have access to any sort of job-protected leave to meet his needs or attend to my other family caregiving responsibilities. Still, my family needs my income to make ends meet. It’s an impossible situation. I was forced to leave a job I loved to look for more flexible work.

Today, I work a contracting job that doesn’t provide any benefits, health insurance, or paid time off. I have more flexibility now, but whenever I need to step away from work to help meet my son’s medical needs, I lose my income entirely until I return. That’s an ongoing challenge for our family and has been exacerbated in the midst of this pandemic.

Gavin is currently in quarantine due to COVID exposure in school and in a few weeks, will undergo an in-patient sleep study at the hospital. Soon after that, he has an appointment to have his tracheostomy removed that will also require an extended hospital stay and close monitoring once we are home. As a mom, caring for my special-needs son during these medical procedures is emotionally draining. Finding care and support for my other children while we are there is also a challenge. Losing my paycheck adds a huge, additional layer of stress because it puts major strain on our family’s budget. Still, I’m grateful we can cover the basics with my husband’s income during these periods, though money is tight. I know for many working people, taking any unpaid leave is simply not an option. I can’t imagine the pain of having to choose between holding my son’s hand in the hospital and keeping food on the table. But because the United States is one of only two developed nations without a national paid leave policy, working families face impossible choices like that all the time.

It’s past time for that to change. Right now, Congress has an historic opportunity to boost working families, communities, our economy and our public health by including a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program in the reconciliation package. West Virginia’s working families are counting on our elected leaders, including Sen. Joe Manchin, to stand up for us and champion this crucial policy in Congress.

I sometimes wonder how we got to this point, failing to adopt the basic policies families need to survive and thrive. What I know is it’s time for lawmakers to deliver the change we need. We all need paid leave, in joyful times and painful times. We all deserve time to welcome a new child, seek medical treatment for a serious condition, or care for a seriously ill loved one, without sacrificing our financial security.

Building a care infrastructure — including paid leave, child care, support for people with disabilities and aging adults, and a permanently expanded Child Tax Credit — is crucial to ensuring everyone can thrive. My family can’t wait any longer. Congress must make paid leave a top priority this year.

Tracy Wood is a speech language pathologist and member of MomsRising. She lives in Wheeling.


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