I don't even have to think about it. I get sick, I call in, and my job is waiting for me when I return. I call this "work with dignity." Oh sure, I have to cancel appointments and ask others in my office to cover certain duties, and many times my return day is more hectic than when I left. But I return healthy and ready to work. For others, this is not the case.
As a worker in a public school, I have the benefit of paid sick leave. This is afforded me through the Family and Medical Leave Act and my educator's contract. I also get to experience firsthand what it's like for families who don't have paid sick leave in their jobs.
In my work at a local high school, I am often asked to counsel students who are experiencing high rates of absences. To protect confidentiality, I cannot give too many identifying details. A student I'll call "Joe" was repeatedly absent from school during his senior year. He was an OK student, not top of the class, but definitely on his way to graduate from high school and follow his dreams. When asked why he was missing so much school, he replied that he was home taking care of his young siblings while his dad had the flu. Then his little brother was sent home from school, so he stayed home to take care of him. A month later, this young man had an abscessed tooth and had to stay out of school again, until his tooth was pulled. But before he stayed home, he came to school, in a lot of pain because he didn't want to miss any more classes. We sent him home, as he was clearly in need of medical care.
"Joe" was able to receive incompletes in some of his first semester classes that enabled him to complete work. He worked extra hard -- as did his teachers -- to accommodate his learning and allow him to pass the classes he needed to graduate. All this while also planning for college, getting discouraged at his grades and deciding eventually that he would postpone college. The thought of leaving his little brothers and sisters alone while his dad worked made college out of the question.
This is a sad story, and not an unusual one for me to see in my high school. Too often, students are kept from school to assist parents in maintaining the well-being of a home, because the parents don't have paid sick leave from their jobs. This to me is the opposite of work with dignity, the human right to healthcare and the right to education.
We are a society who boasts that education is the equalizer -- that social mobility can be obtained by education, degrees and by those who "work hard." Yet how can this happen when there are different expectations and treatment of workers in our communities?
Everyone should have jobs with paid sick time. Paid sick leave is one piece of creating safe and healthy workplaces, which are a human right and also have a ripple effect on our other human rights. Next year in our legislature, we have an opportunity to pass paid sick days in Vermont. That's an opportunity to choose what kind of state we want to be, and if we want to take one step closer to being a place where all kids can meet their full potential, all parents can care for their kids, and all workers can rest at ease. As a guidance counselor and mom, that's the state I want to live in.
Amy Lester lives in Plainfield, and is the vice-president of the Vermont Workers' Center, which is working with the VT Paid Sick Days Coalition to make paid sick time a reality for VT workers in 2014. To learn more about the Paid Sick Days 2014 Campaign, visit http://www.voicesforvtkids.org/paidsickdays/. To learn more about the Vermont Workers' Center, visit www.workerscenter.org.