D.C. Native Fights to Save Universal Paid Leave

by: Kimberly Mitchell Special to the AFRO
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I often wonder what my mother’s final moments were like. She was a firecracker. She came from Boston, was a HUGE Patriots fan, and very glam.

When she died two years ago, I was not there with her, holding her hand. In the days leading up to her death, I wasn’t there to braid her hair. When she first found out she was sick, she waited to tell me because she didn’t want me to get in trouble at work. In her last days, I did my best to be there for her, but I was trying to manage life, my daughter, my aging parents, and work. I had to tell my mom on her dying day that I had to put her in a nursing home. I should have been there but I couldn’t because I had to go back to work. Two years on and I still feel so much grief and regret for those precious moments I can never get back. This is not the way life was meant to be.

I work at a big retailer in the city and we have no paid family leave and a strict point system for missing work that doesn’t reflect the reality of life. It means we go into work when we’re ill instead of recovering at home. It means we can’t take time off to care for our parents, or for my first grandchild who’s due this Fall. The irony is that we do get a few days off for bereavement. We can be there at their funeral, but not in their last days, at the moments when it really matters. Families shouldn’t have to choose between losing pay or being there for a loved one in his or her final moments.

We are all called to do something and my experience with my mom is what led me to fight for the District’s paid family leave law last year. I believe that we can do better for our families. I showed up during the vote on the Universal Paid Leave Act and I was thrilled when the law passed. I could hear my mom telling me to get out and fight for justice and to make sure my fellow Washingtonians don’t have to make the same awful choices I had to when my mother was dying.

Now the law hangs in the balance, as D.C. Council members consider repealing and replacing the law with a riskier plan that would gut critical benefit protections for workers like me and create more burdens for businesses.

I’m a native Washingtonian and think it is deeply unfair and wrong that we can’t take care of our families. That’s why I fought hard along with so many others to pass a universal paid family leave bill that would make it possible for us to care for our families without losing our jobs or our incomes. And it makes me lose faith in the D.C. Council that they are now working with big business lobbyists to destroy our bill and delay getting District families what they need. They want us to believe that the businesses will do right by us, when they have shown time after time that they don’t put us first.

Last week I had a conversation with a lovely woman who lives in Northwest and is a hospice volunteer. When her husband died of cancer she was able to take seven months off of work to be there with him. Seven months! I can’t even imagine the expression on my manager’s face if I asked for that. We talked about how hard dying is and how nobody tells you that. How painful and scary and chaotic it is, and how many appointments you have to juggle on top of it all. She told me being able to take those seven months was the greatest gift of her life because they were able to go through all of that together.

The District’s Universal Paid Leave Act would provide up to six weeks of paid leave to be with a loved one during a medical crisis. It’s not seven months, but six weeks pushes the District in the right direction of fairness and basic decency for all families.

It’s not right that where you live in this city determines how you’re able to care for your family. We are the nation’s capital. We should be leading the way.

I am worried that we are moving in the wrong direction. I saw Chairman Mendelson speak recently about how it feels like everything in the District has taken a few steps forward and a few steps back. We can’t afford to take steps back on something that is so important to our families and our community.

When I hear about D.C. Council members who are trying to destroy our paid leave law, I imagine they must be lucky that they haven’t yet had to care for a spouse or partner or child who is sick or dying. I can’t see how anyone who has been through this wouldn’t want everyone to be able to be covered through this.

I’m not giving up. I still hope and believe that compassion will prevail and we will get the universal paid leave bill we fought for – and won. It’s the only bill that puts working families first. And for the council members who won’t fight for our families — we’ll be sure to remember you in 2018 and 2020.

Kimberly Mitchell is a mom, daughter, and soon to be grandmother, who lives in Ward 7 in Washington D.C.

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