Letter to the editor: Single mom explains need for Family Leave Act

I am a working-class mother of a 9-year-old child here in Ripton, Vt. This last year I struggled with a severe medical condition that required intensive ongoing treatment. I was instructed to apply for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act so my job would be protected while I was receiving my treatment. I currently work fulltime at a nonprofit reproductive healthcare organization as a healthcare worker, providing essential and high-quality care to Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. My income is not considered a livable wage in Vermont as an adult with one dependent living in Addison County.

In order for me to have received any payment during my time off, I also was required to apply for short-term disability. My income does not cover my living expenses; I receive constant financial backing from my mother, which I am forever grateful to have access to that kind of support. I live paycheck to paycheck as is. Getting a short-term disability check would not even cover half of my expenses. Needless to say, I ended up working throughout my treatment process, and sometimes worked instead of attending treatment, simply because I had to. I was going to still need to pay for rent, electricity, heat, internet, a phone, food, water, gasoline, insurance, car payment, etc. Having a medical crisis and needing ongoing treatment was not going to eliminate that reality.

When it became clear that I needed medical intervention, the Human Resources department at my job sent me 35 pages worth of information to review, regarding the FMLA and short-term disability, and 10 pages worth of forms I needed to fill out or send to my doctors and treatment team to fill out and send back. This needed to be completed within two weeks of my leave or I could face termination for an excess of absences. This was a lot for me to do considering I was now unexpectedly battling an illness. I was exhausted and discouraged. My place and contribution as a healthcare worker was undervalued by the bureaucratic hoops I was required to jump through and the lack of support I received as a resident and employee in need. Unfortunately, this was not a new realization. I expected to face many barriers to get an insufficient wage that would not allot me the proper time to heal and restore my health.

Vermont is increasingly becoming utterly unsustainable for a low-income, single, working parent such as myself to provide a quality life for their family. The addition of a medical condition into this already precarious situation creates a cascade of financial hardships that compound quickly. I am wholeheartedly in support and advocating for a state-funded Paid Family Medical Leave (PFML) program that ensures a sufficient wage replacement along with job protection for all workers, especially those earning low wages. This bill will help level out the economic playing field and support the thousands of Vermonters like me who will face the very normal experience of having a medical condition.

If we adjust the scale of these financial troubles to the state level, what can we see? In Sascha Mayer’s article, Mayer: Paid Family and Medical Leave is More Essential Now than Ever, in Vermont Biz Magazine, she states,

“In January 2022 alone, nearly 4,500 Vermonters were not working because they were sick with or caring for someone with COVID-19, and more than 10,500 due to another illness or disability. This represents a massive economic hit when you consider the average Vermonter who takes four weeks of unpaid leave loses more than $3,300 in income. Since 2020, Vermont workers who were infected with COVID-19 have lost approximately $35.2 million in wages due to a lack of or insufficient paid leave.”

I am aware we are a state of many small businesses that could not easily offer this robust benefit to their workers. With the backing of our legislature we could pass a state funded PFML insurance program that corresponds to the needs of working Vermonters’ while closing the affordability gap for small businesses.

We have the luxury to learn from early-adopter states; there is ongoing research and data available where we can draw ways to best structure programs and operate efficiently while minimizing the burdens on businesses and state administrators. For example, the state can administer PFML programs through security employment agencies which already have wage and labor attachment data, which decreases redundancy in reporting.

I am writing this letter while my kid is in the other room watching a movie and resting with our dogs. I am deeply concerned about what the future holds for him and his generation. Yet, I remain determined to advocate for systems and structures that appreciate the contributions of all people and can support those in need, instead of structures that aim to exploit essential workers, and retract resources from them when they are vulnerable, caring for another, and unable to generate profit.

I hope when the time comes to cast a vote you will consider my experience, along with countless other Vermonters and support a PFML program here in Vermont. 

Ash Hickey


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