By: Wendi C. Thomas
Fran Ruff is 42 years old. She lives in West Columbia, South Carolina.
The divorced mother of four says trying to maintain a budget without paid sick leave is impossible.
Common sense says she should keep a sick child home from school, if only to keep him from spreading germs to classmates and teachers. But the reality is that with no slack in her budget and no paid sick leave, she can’t survive the financial penalty of lost wages.
Two years ago, at her job as an office manager for an optometrist’s office, Ruff came down with the flu, but went to work anyway because she did not have paid sick leave.
“I was seriously ill,” Ruff said. “I should have stayed home.”
To make it worse, her job wasn’t in the back, where she could suffer out of patients’ sight. “I have to be right there at the front desk and try to be cheery.”
So she sat at the front reception desk, smiling despite an upset stomach that kept her running back and forth to the bathroom.
The irony of working for a medical professional who had paid time off wasn’t lost on her. “When [the doctor] gets sick, he just calls out and doesn’t bother to come in,” Ruff said.
When Ruff’s youngest child threw up at school and had to be picked up, she knew not to ask her boss if she could leave. “The first conversation would be, ‘Is there anyone else who can do this?’” said Ruff, sounding exasperated. “If there were anyone else, I wouldn’t have asked him. If there were any other way I could do it, I would do it.”
She relied on relatives, hoping they could rearrange their schedules to care for her son as she knew that even a few days of missed pay would upset her family’s finances.
“I feel bad as a mother because I have to rumble my child around here and there when I should just be able to stay home with my child when he’s sick.”
Even without missing work for a sick child, Ruff couldn’t make ends meet on the $9.50 an hour she made as an office manager working six days a week. Section 8 covered half her rent, but still, for an entire year, Ruff had to get extensions on her utility bill.
“These people think I’m some kind of irresponsible person, but I can’t pay it,” she said. “It’s really embarrassing. My self-esteem was out the door.”
The pressure was nearly unbearable. “There were times that I would pray I wouldn’t wake up because it was entirely too stressful.”
Today, Ruff has paid leave at her job as a contact lens technician, where she makes $12.24 an hour. Paid leave gives her the flexibility to care for herself and her children if they are sick without financial penalty.
She had to use her sick time twice in the last year. “It’s no big deal,” she said. “It’s not as harrowing as it was before.”