My aunt died this week. She was a private woman who tried to keep her internet presence to a minimum, so I won’t memorialize her here, except to say that she was an incredibly gracious, giving person and a loving aunt.
I want to talk instead about something I’ve realized recently: how economics influences not just peoples’ lives, but also their deaths.
I’ve spent most of the last month in New York City. Along with my parents and my sister, I’ve been making meals, shoveling sidewalks, and de-cluttering spaces. I’ve been distracting and comforting my cousins, who are only 10 and 14. And while my aunt was still at home, I was a small part of the team that cared for her, that helped her feel comfortable – and loved.
I have been told what we’re doing is “above and beyond” but I don’t see it as a gift I’ve given. It is a gift I have received. Death is an incomprehensible and terrible thing. Some people cope with that fact by pushing it to the edges of their lives, but for those of us who find comfort in understanding and experiencing, to be present for death is an incredible privilege.
The federal government does not require that employers provide any bereavement leave. Of the individual states, only Oregon seems to require it. (Note that family, as defined by the Oregon law, would not have included my aunt.) Some may try to use sick leave for these purposes, however the federal government does not require paid sick leave, and to qualify for mandated unpaid sick leave an employee must work more than half time for twelve months and for an organization with 50+ employees. Connecticut is the only state with mandated paid sick leave – some cities and localities have passed laws requiring it, which led to ten states passing laws prohibiting local governments from requiring paid sick leave. An order of magnitude more states prohibit cities from mandating paid sick leave than mandate it themselves.
Essentially, the decision whether to offer paid sick leave or any kind of bereavement leave at all has been left to the employer. The result? 40% of all workers have no paid sick days, including 80% of low-wage workers.
The distinction between paid sick leave and unpaid sick leave is vital. Families with economic resources, like mine, can take unpaid leave as needed. It might affect our finances, but not to the extent that we can’t pay our bills. None of us had to choose between caring for my aunt and keeping our housing, our cars, or our good credit. For low-wage workers who don’t make enough money to have savings, or who have spent it all on medical care, losing the income from their job even for a few weeks could be devastating.
There is an additional privilege at work here. In fact, the above is irrelevant to my personal situation: I am an hourly contractor and as such get no paid leave of any kind (vacation, holidays, sick days, etc). But my work is remote, and I set my own hours. I have been working these last several weeks, in the evenings before bed and in a half-day spent at a cafe here or there. Exhausting? Yes. But very doable for a month or so.
So-called knowledge-workers are much more likely to be able to work remotely. With few exceptions, these types of jobs are held by people with college degrees or higher. The average college student graduates with just under $30,000 in debt. If I had not gone to college – and taken on about that much debt – I might not have had the working situation which allowed me to come to New York and be with my family.
I have not even touched on the effect of poverty on the medical treatment people receive, or on exposure to environmental toxins and carcinogens, the increased toll of physical labor and the higher likelihood of workplace hazards, the decreased access to healthy food, or the lack of time and flexibility to exercise. Suffice it to say poverty does kill: the poorest American women die 10 years earlier than their richest counterparts, and the poorest men die 14 years earlier.
I have many wonderful friends who have asked how they can help. For those of you in Massachusetts, please consider supporting Raise Up Massachusetts, which is fighting for access to paid sick leave. If you’re not in MA, you can look for campaigns in your state. In the end, there’s nothing we can do about death. But we don’t have to make it so damn hard for some people to be with the people they love as they’re dying. This is a fight we can actually win.