The United States is the rare industrialized country that does not guarantee its residents paid vacation. For Joe Pierpont and Janet Peck, this meant significant disruption to their jobs and income when their children, extended family, or themselves fall ill or need care. Pierpont worked at a Maaco dealership in Delaware for five years, but he never received any paid vacation other than a few weeks’ vacation. “You really don’t care about people,” he said of his employer. When something underage shows up, like one of the two kids getting sick, his partner Janet Peck, who doesn’t currently have a paid job, usually takes care of it alone.
But the family faced a number of emergencies that were more difficult to deal with. Shortly before the pandemic, her youngest child got an infection that took her to the hospital for a week. Pierpont couldn’t take time off work, so he looked after her older son and brought clothes and food to Peck at the hospital 20 minutes away. She lived more or less in the hospital with her daughter. Had Pierpont been able to take a few days off, the couple could have switched roles so Peck could go home to sleep and shower. When Peck gave birth to her daughter five years ago, all she could get from her job as assistant manager at a McDonald’s was unpaid vacation. A few years ago, Peck went to the hospital for a panniculectomy to remove excess skin after gastric bypass surgery. It was supposed to be a one night hospital stay. Instead, she ended up there five nights after losing a “frightening” amount of blood. To care for her children, both of whom are autistic, Pierpont took a few days off without pay and then had to get his mother and a friend who also has children with special needs to help him.
The lost income meant a financial blow. When Peck was admitted to the hospital, “it was only a few days, at least,” she said. “Had it been longer, we would have really hurt.” She still hasn’t paid those medical bills.
When older relatives got sick, Pierpont and Peck couldn’t be with them. In 2012, Peck’s mother, who lived with them, was seriously ill with lung cancer. Neither Peck nor Pierpont had paid for their free time, so in their final days they still had to go to work instead of being with her. A few years later, Peck’s father, who also had lung cancer, ended up in the hospital and was not expected to recover. Peck had only started working in a school cafeteria a few months earlier and had barely accumulated paid vacation. When she went to West Virginia to visit him, and a few months later when he died, the days off cost her her job. A little over a year ago, when Pierpont lost his grandfather, who “was a very important person in my life,” he said, he couldn’t take the time to be with his family.
“You go to work sick because you have no choice,” Peck explained. “You have to pay bills, children to take care of. You have things to do ”
Peck and Pierpont are not alone. A quarter of private sector workers do not receive paid sick leave from work, while only one in five receives paid family leave for the arrival of a new child or serious illness or injury. The only federal program, the Family and Sick Leave Act, provides 12 weeks of unpaid time off.