A Paid Leave Story

By April Matson, Communications Officer Panorama

Let’s be honest. If you aren’t immediately planning for a baby, dealing with an existing personal condition, or caring for a sick family member, paid leave can easily be a benefit you dismiss. Show me upward mobility, great salary, transportation, retirement, and work-life balance and we’re covered. That’s how I looked at it.

That changed on Jan. 26, 2016.

I’d just gotten to work and was settling into my day as my phone rang. It was my dad, which immediately made me sweat. He never called, especially not during the day. Through tears, shaky breaths, and a wavering voice, he said my mom was being taken to the hospital and the paramedics had used the word “stroke.”

There are words that, by their very nature, fall heavy on your ears, and “stroke” is one of them.

As fear, tears, and shock took over I went to find my boss, who was in a meeting. I told a co-worker and promptly left without knowing what the future held. What state my mom was in, when I would be back, or how my absence would be handled.

I’ll stop here and share that this is a positive story. My mom is alive and well. That said, over the course of 12 months she spent close to two months in hospitals or rehab centers. She endured heart and brain surgery, battled infection and, at one point, I watched her go into cardiac arrest. Through it all, the emotional toll that fell on my father, my siblings, my niece and nephews, and myself grew heavier and harder to bear.

My parents had been married for 54 years and the sudden absence of my mom left my father without a rudder. What bills need to be paid, how much money is in the bank, what do I need to bring her, who do I need to call? He was fearful and grieving, and was thrust into a role he didn’t know how to navigate. His age and fading eyesight compounded the situation and meant my fully employed siblings and I found ourselves in a caregiver role for two parents.

My sister worked for a state agency and my brother and I for small, private companies, none of which offered an option for caregiver leave. My employer, however, was a somewhat non-traditional, family-run organization that always prided itself on doing the right thing. Over the course of that year I took more than a month off. Sometimes the leave was planned, sometimes it was due to emergencies and I didn’t know when I would return. Regardless of cause, I was always shown support and flexibility, and never pressured to return. “Take the time you need,” was always the message.

I often wonder what would have happened if I had worked somewhere where I wouldn’t have been able to step up for my family. The resulting burden would have been overwhelming. If I had blown through my paid time off and was left with nothing, no way to take a break and recover, I would have emotionally unraveled. Financial implications to my family would have increased and, ultimately, our unity and strength would have been compromised.

But my company stepped up and did the right thing.

While they didn’t have a formal caregiver policy, they acted as if they did and I’ll forever be grateful. A year to the day of my mom’s stroke, I chose to move on from that organization with the hope of finding a place where I could make an impact on important issues that affect us all. A few months later I found myself here at Panorama, working to help increase the number of U.S. employees that have access to paid family and medical leave.

I was lucky, but this is a benefit that shouldn’t be left to chance.