A few days ago, I woke up with a sore throat and one swollen lymph node – no other symptoms. After frantically Googling “single swollen lymph node,” “left lymph node swole” and “asymmetrical lymph node pain bad?” I alerted my supervisor at work. While we agreed that it was extremely unlikely to be anything serious – my guess is a mild virus, or possibly just another weird way my body responds to stress – the protocol was that I couldn’t come back to the office until I produced a negative COVID test.

This meant I would miss work for the day, which was a good thing, since my throat was in pain and my job involves a lot of talking on the phone. Protocol also dictated that I would be paid “quarantine wages” – that is, my shifts missed while waiting for a negative COVID-19 test. I would not have to use my paid time off, which would usually be where my pay for a missed shift would come from.

See, at the current job, like my former job, the way paid time off works is that you accrue a certain amount of paid time off with every pay period – the exact amount depended on your position and seniority. You can use your paid time off – PTO – for anything, but it is also the only paid time off you have; there is no specific “sick leave.” (The exception being legally mandated unpaid family and medical leave.) You can probably see the problem here: If your paid time off is limited and optional, then when you wake up with symptoms of sickness, you have to make some choices.

Now I want to make this very clear: I am very, very lucky to have any paid leave at all. But I will also make this very clear: In the Before Times, I used to go to work while actively sick. Not every time I was sick, of course – I definitely stayed home if I had a fever.

When we were kids, my mom’s rule of thumb was to keep us out of school until 24 hours after our fevers passed, which I think is a pretty decent rule. But if it was just a stuffy nose and a sore throat? Heck yeah, I would pop some cough drops and go to work. Completely maskless, to boot! In addition to spreading germs around, going to work while sick also prolongs any illness, because rest is pretty much the best thing you can do for your body when sick. (And drinking extra fluids, of course.) My thought process was usually “Well, I’m not that sick. I should save my paid time off for if I get really sick, or if I need to miss work for some other reason.”

So it was a huge weight off my shoulders to be able to take the day off work, get paid and not have to worry about whether or not the decision would come back to bite me in the butt.

We have been living within the COVID-19 pandemic for well over a year now. We finally have safe, effective vaccines being pumped out of factories and into arms. I can’t wait to leave the sickness and fear behind us. But I hope one thing we decide, as Americans, to take away from this plague, is the importance of paid sick leave. Also, home-baked sourdough bread. (I really like good bread.)

On the bright side, both my mother, New York Times Best-Selling Author and State Treasure Julia Spencer-Fleming, and my sister Virginia (no impressive titles yet, but they will come) have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus! They both got Pfizer, both felt a little under the weather the day after their second shots and both agree it is much, much preferable to getting COVID-19. I got my vaccines back in January, because I work in a medical facility, and I thought I had lost my little paper card. (Back then, they didn’t hammer home how important it was to keep them!)

Now, if you lose it, it’s not the end of the world – there are digital immunization records – but I was bummed to lose a little piece of history, like my mom’s old paperwork from her smallpox vaccine. Fortunately, it turns out I didn’t lose it after all – I had just tucked it inside my checkbook and immediately forgot about it, because I’m a millennial and millennials never use paper checks if we can help it. I’ll put it in my important documents file for safekeeping. It has done its job. Time to let my little piece of history gather dust in peace.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @mainemillennial

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