I am a Family Nurse Practitioner who has worked with Great Falls residents for 38 years. I am also a family caregiver.
When my husband and I raised our daughters, we were both fortunate to work for county and state agencies, and a local school district. We had benefits that included paid leave to care for our children when they were ill. We lived 4 hours away from both of our extended families, and could not ask them to step in. We chose public service jobs that may not have paid as well as private sector, due to our shared values for public education and public health. However, we always were grateful for the benefits our positions provided. We give credit to the professional teaching and nursing unions that represented us our entire careers, for advocating for these benefits. Many Montana workers do not have those same benefits.
When our daughters were ill, we could be with them. We were blessed with healthy children overall, but there was the occasional illness stressor, such as when my young toddler got an intestinal infection that was highly contagious, and we had to keep her out of daycare for several weeks. We were both able to take medical leave, and between us, care for her until she could return to daycare.
Our parents were not very well in their final years. My husband and I and our siblings are in the sandwich generation, caring for both our children and our parents, in our 40’s and 50’s. My mother, who lived gracefully with a serious physical disability for 40 years, died this past October, after being on hospice services for 20 months. She lived in Billings, and I am so blessed to have siblings. But we traveled Highway 87 from Great Falls to Billings several times a month. I would never give back those days I was able to spend with her. Even though she was on hospice and resided in an assisted living facility, she had periods of mental confusion and needed family to be with her for comfort and support. She gave us so much during our lives, and we promised her we would never desert or forsake her. My sister, my daughter, and I all worked for public institutions, and were able to take medical leave to care for my mother. My sister used up all her leave, and eventually took an early retirement, as she was my mother’s primary caregiver. Had we been employees at businesses that did not provide paid leave, my mother would have had a much lower quality of life in her final years. I would venture to say that my sisters’ and my own health would have been more precarious, due to the stress of not being able to take leave, or take it unpaid. We also would have been less productive at our worksites where she was a state auditor, and I still teach and train future nurses, had it not been for our paid leave.
As I said earlier, my mother lived with a disability for 40 years, the strongest person I will ever know. She was the family farm bookkeeper until she went into hospice. Both my parents had many surgeries, hospitalizations, temporary nursing home placements, and home health care providers during the last 20 years. We depended on those helpers. Often the personal care providers they had did not have health insurance or paid sick leave from their employers. Thus, they would come to work ill, caring for my vulnerable parents.
Those lower wage workers, who care for our parents and our children, prepare our food, and clean our offices, are the Montanans who are most likely to NOT have workplace benefits for family and medical leave. They cannot afford to take time off, and thus will often come to work ill. They are trying their best to support and care for their families, but they unintentionally spread their illnesses to vulnerable Montana senior citizens and children through personal care services. They may also come to work ill, make your hamburger at your favorite dining establishment, and you end up with their illness. It is because they can’t afford to take time off without pay, not because they intend to hurt anyone else. In fact they are trying to be productive citizens and take care of their families, while being loyal to their employers. We owe them more and we owe our most vulnerable citizens more.