When one of my roommates tested positive for COVID-19, my mind was flooded with questions and fears. Would she be OK? Would she suffer any of the severe complications I had heard so much about? Would I test positive too, and if so, what would happen to me? How would we keep her isolated with three of us living in one apartment?
But on top of all that: If I couldn’t work for the next two weeks, how would I pay the rent?
I work at a microbrewery and, like most restaurant workers, I don’t have access to paid family and medical leave. In fact, the vast majority of workers in the United States don’t have access to paid leave through their employers, and more than 30 million of us don’t have access to a single sick day.
When I needed to quarantine to protect my coworkers and our customers, it meant I didn’t get paid for two weeks. That was a huge hit — that income would have covered about half my rent. Money was already tight because my hours had been cut back dramatically during the pandemic. Not having paid leave meant that while I was worrying about my roommate and keeping myself safe, I was also worried about how I would make ends meet.
In the end, I was lucky. My roommate recovered, I didn’t contract the virus, and although it caused some serious strain, I managed to pay the bills that month. But if I had gotten COVID-19 and needed more time off, I’m not sure what would have happened. It shouldn’t be this way. We need a national, comprehensive paid family- and medical-leave program that ensures all workers can take the time they need to quarantine, recover from illness, welcome a new child, or care for a sick loved one.
Congress took a huge step forward last year when it included emergency paid-leave benefits in the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA). This policy helped many workers access the paid leave they needed to quarantine, recover from COVID-19, or care for their children when schools and child-care programs closed. Research has confirmed that FFCRA paid leave helped slow the spread of COVID-19.
But this temporary, emergency policy was full of loopholes and left many workers out. Plus, not nearly enough effort was put into educating workers about this paid leave, so I wasn’t even aware of it when I needed it. And shamefully, Congress allowed this policy to expire at the end of 2020.
I want to see Congress swiftly reinstate this emergency policy and close the loopholes so all workers are protected. But more than that, I need lawmakers to finally pass a permanent, comprehensive paid family- and medical-leave policy that covers all workers for the full range of caregiving needs.
After all, for workers like me, this was a serious problem long before the pandemic. There have been several instances when one of my family members has had a serious health issue and I couldn’t take time off to care for them. Several years ago my mother had a breast cancer scare, and she had a really tough time. I wanted so badly to be able to accompany her to appointments, help her with day-to-day tasks and be with her during that frightening time. But there was no way I could afford the time off and still pay my bills. That’s not right — no one should have to choose between financial security and being there for loved ones when needed most.
Passing a federal paid family- and medical-leave policy would protect people from these sorts of impossible choices. It would be a huge win for workers, businesses, our economy, and for public health. I hope the Biden administration and Congress will make paid leave a top priority, because I know it is for workers like me.
Nour Qutyan is a Yemeni immigrant living in Philadelphia and works as a server and bartender. Nour is an activist with the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a student, and a member of the Voices of Workers group in the Paid Leave for All campaign.