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A major new bill on Capitol Hill could give Congress the rare opportunity to address an issue that has long since fallen by the wayside – paid family vacations.

Today, only some workers have access to paid time off to attend to loved ones or their own medical needs.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle have proposed a national paid vacation policy to allow all workers to take time off from work.

The Covid-19 pandemic has helped draw attention to the issue that has remained largely untouched by Congress since the 1993 Family and Sick Leave Act allowed workers to take unpaid leave for family or medical reasons.

In 2020, a temporary program was launched to reimburse companies that offered paid vacation to their employees during the pandemic.

Legislators are now negotiating the terms of a more permanent policy that could give workers up to 12 weeks off.

Proponents welcome the move that would help align the US with other developed nations.

“Paid vacation is really a cornerstone,” said Molly Day, executive director of Paid Vacation for the United States. “It brings women back to work on the other side of Covid, it ensures small businesses can attract and retain talent, and on a global scale, it actually makes us competitive.”

It is true that paid family vacation has drawn its share of criticism, particularly in terms of the way it would be paid for and how it could affect companies’ existing policies.

However, families facing urgent care needs say that their lives would be different if they had access to paid family leave when they needed it.

Difficult choices

Ashton Dargenzio, pictured with her daughter, was not entitled to paid maternity leave after giving birth.

When Ashton Dargenzio, 29, of Pittsburgh gave birth to her now 18-month-old daughter, she was faced with the difficult decision of whether to take unpaid maternity leave or keep working to pay her bills.

“Because I am a single mother, I had no choice,” she said.

The situation was made more difficult by the fact that Dargenzio’s daughter was admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit immediately after the birth.

Dargenzio, who had a caesarean section, was unable to stay in the hospital with her daughter because of Covid-19.

Instead, she woke up early every morning to go to the hospital and breastfeed her daughter, and then sat in a separate hospital room to use a chest and work at the same time. When she was done, Dargenzio would move to the hospital waiting room, where she would set up her workplace again.

Dargenzio is currently an information technology contract worker who requires constant problem resolution and repairs, she said.

This plan continued throughout her 12 week maternity leave.

“It was one of the most frustrating and stressful things I have ever had to go through in my life,” said Dargenzio.

“Not having the paid vacation experience opened my eyes to see how many people actually experience it,” she said.

Unfortunately, for Dargenzio, the challenges of juggling and caring for her daughter are likely to become even more complicated.

Since Dargenzio’s daughter has bilateral hip dysplasia, she has to undergo three operations. That will leave your daughter with a waist-to-toe cast and very limited mobility.

Dargenzio expects to take a week off after each operation to look after her daughter. However, the full recovery time after each procedure is expected to be around six weeks.

Access to a paid vacation scheme would make the situation a lot easier, Dargenzio said.

Instead of worrying about how she will pay her rent and utility bills, she could focus on her daughter’s needs.

“Waking up in the morning and just focusing on my daughter and her care and her health and needs while she is disabled would be huge,” said Dargenzio.

“Parents shouldn’t have to worry about this,” she said.

Different states

Adrienne Streater, pictured with husband Douglas and two daughters, says having access to paid family vacations helped tremendously when she was a new mom.

Source: Adrienne Streater

After Adrienne Streater, 45, gave birth to their first daughter, she returned to work 20 days after an emergency Caesarean section.

The South Carolina start-up she was working for at the time didn’t have a formal vacation policy. However, she was able to be flexible in how many days a week she worked in the office.

Still, it was “more than stressful” for Streater and her husband to take care of the new addition to their family, a daughter with special needs, she said.

Her daughter had to have an operation at 10 weeks and then again at 18 months.

“There is a famous southern saying, ‘God will not impose more on you than you can handle,’” said Streater. “Well, that was a lie.”

Much of the worries from Streater’s first pregnancy followed her when she got pregnant with her second child, also a daughter, and contributed to postpartum depression, she said.

However, since Streater and her husband Douglas had moved from South Carolina to New York State, their experience the second time around was very different.

Her husband could take the four weeks of vacation he’d accumulated while working to look after her and the baby. During this time he was still receiving full paychecks.

“We haven’t lost a beat financially,” said Streater.

But other families in the same situation may not be so lucky, she said.

The time to take care of her daughters has definitely affected her ability to work.

“My career is definitely not what I imagined when I was 25,” said Streater. “I know that in the end I will have two beautiful healthy daughters for whom I would do anything.”

Streater said that she and her husband are teaching their daughters, who are now 7 and 5 years old, that no way is left to take away from them the opportunities that are available to them.

The same should apply to parents who need time to look after their children, she said.

“A big step”

Megan Hebdon, 37, was a young mother when her one-year-old daughter developed health problems.

Violent seizures resulted in hospitalization and several follow-up appointments.

Since then, Hebdon’s daughter, now 11, has had periods when she is healthy and seizure-free and others when she has been hospitalized every month over the years. She almost died three years ago.

The health problems have put a strain on the family who lives in the Austin area not only emotionally but also financially.

Hebdon, who worked as a nurse in a clinic, was able to take early unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

“It was a tremendous financial burden on our family,” Hebdon said.

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At that time, she had to decide whether her child was well cared for or whether she would generate an income for the family. “It’s a tough decision,” said Hebdon.

The ups and downs of her daughter’s health are also evident in Hebdon’s résumé.

Despite being a self-proclaimed “yes” person, challenges inevitably arose that forced Hebdon to choose between family and career, especially when employers showed a lack of flexibility.

“If you look at my professional history, you would probably think that I am an unreliable person,” said Hebdon.

When a nationwide policy on paid leave is put in place, she will feel relieved, not only for her family, but also for other parents who are also struggling with employment, finances and care. The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these difficulties, she said.

“I still think there are other ways we can change our social environment to support people with chronic illnesses or caregivers, but I think it’s a big step, a big step,” Hebdon said.