Marlene Bustamante and Clara Vasquez

Marlene Bustamante and Clara Vasquez

Two years after my husband and I had our son, we received terrible news: My mother needed intensive treatment for a slow-growing brain tumor next to her spinal cord. Suddenly, my whole world changed.

I was working full-time in health care, but now my mom needed my care; there was no way she’d be able to manage her appointments and daily needs without my help.

My family still needed two paychecks to make ends meet, but as I took my mom to more and more appointments, the few days off I had were dwindling quickly.

Because my employer didn’t offer paid leave, I was forced to choose between my financial security and being there for my mom when she needed me most. Ultimately, I left my job to care for her.

My mother was so many things to our family: a warrior, a woman of faith, and a guardian with a huge heart. I knew I had to be there for her in her time of need. But caring for her caused us financial strain in more ways than one.

She was living on a fixed income and needed help with her medical bills. I had to travel to Seattle to spend a week with her in the hospital, then bring her home to the Yakima Valley. In other words, just as my family was suddenly facing major new expenses, I had lost my income.

All the while we still had to pay the rent and other bills and provide for our son. Unfortunately, too many people have stories similar to mine, as the majority of people in the United States don’t have access to paid leave through their employers. When a loved one is facing a medical crisis, you want to be with them 100 percent - not worrying about how to make ends meet. Paid leave would have given me that peace of mind during a traumatic time.

I cared for my mother for about two months before she passed away. Losing my mother was devastating, and even as I was trying to process my grief, it felt like I was left with no good options financially. I couldn’t easily return to the job I had left. Plus, my mother had been our main source of childcare, and I didn’t know how I was suddenly going to start paying for someone else to watch my son, especially after losing so much pay.

That was a tough period for us, emotionally and financially. Paid leave would have really helped. My job would have been protected, making the transition back to work much easier, and I could have kept my income. My mom’s medical emergency shouldn’t have thrown us into a financial crisis. But because we had no paid leave, it did.

Thankfully, starting January 2, 2020, most Washington workers now qualify for up to 16 weeks of combined paid family and medical leave each year to take care of a seriously ill family member, recover from their own serious medical condition, or bond with a new child. The new program, which passed with bipartisan support in 2017, is a huge win for parents, families, communities, employers and our economy.

Small payroll premiums for the program began in January 2019, with the average working person contributing just $2 a week. Now nearly all working people who have accrued at least 820 hours in the last year are now eligible for paid leave, and the program’s progressive wage replacement will make it possible for low-wage workers to afford this time off. I encourage everyone to learn more about this new program and how to take part.

Caring for loved ones is such a huge part of what makes us human. I’m proud to live in a state that is leading the way in supporting working people so we can be there for family in times of joy and times of hardship.

No one should have to face the impossible choice I did between my paycheck and caring for my mom, regardless of where they live. I hope Washington’s program serves as a model for a federal paid leave policy, so all working people can have the security we deserve, no matter what state we call home.

Clara Vasquez resides in Sunnyside and is a mom, home-based care worker and member of MomsRising.

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