As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, I noticed how difficult it was for some of my patients to take off work when they were sick and that bothered me. Patients often asked me what they should do. Particularly, if they should go to work while feeling bad or if they should stay home and not get paid. I was able to discuss the risk of exposing co-workers if they were indeed positive for the virus but the most concerning part was that they even had to weigh their options. I started to do more research about what options were available for leave in both my state and on a federal level and it was truly alarming to see that only 60% of the current workforce qualified for the family medical leave act and that the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act (passed 26 years after FMLA) only covers 2.6 million federal employees.
As a nation, we are really behind in addressing paid family leave and while I am happy that federal employees now have access to it, the provisions are simply not enough. I have a few patients who take care of their elderly parents and I can imagine them having to leave them to go to work because they cannot afford to pay for in-home care for them or for someone to take them to doctors visits because they have to make enough money to put food on the table for everyone in their household. I cannot imagine that patient who has a stomach issue and constantly struggles while at work and is unable to take off because they are worrying about paying their bills. I am truly baffled as to why those scenarios as well as job protection after returning to work were not included. After doing more research regarding the preparedness of the average American household, it appears that 60% of Americans do not have more than 1 month savings available. I was fortunate enough to work for a facility as a fellow that covered my leave for a total of 3 months. Before knowing this, my plan was to go back to work in 6 weeks but the 12 weeks that I spent with my son were some of the happiest times of my life and I was focused and ready to get back to work when my leave was over.
I truly believe that it is time for us to re-evaluate the values that are important to us as Americans and to decide whether we want to pay now or pay later as data is coming out that shows that when workers are focused and not just present at work, their productivity increases. I believe that it is also time to shift the conversation as it relates to what paid leave means and exploring novel ways of funding it.
I look forward to sharing straight facts with no chaser on my next Podcast episode.
Dr. Jessica Edwards