I was like most young people that I know; I wanted to earn a steady, decent salary and give back to my community and help people. I love kids, so I felt super lucky when I was hired by a residential home for children with autism as their residential director. We averaged 15-20 residents at a time ranging in age from 12 to 18 years old in four different houses, and I managed a staff of about 50 people.
As residential director I was responsible for the day-to-day lives and programming and experience of all residents. I would meet with their school liaisons to make sure we were all on the same page, meet with staff, handle scheduling, go to at least four or five meetings a day with other people, other coordinators across programs and across the whole building. I went shopping for supplies, took kids to doctors’ appointments, followed up and kept in contact with parents and guardians, and did the incident reports that went to the state. All my kids were with us because of behavior issues – aggression and things like that. I created behavior plans and staff strategies and trainings.
It was a lot, but I loved it.
I have asthma, and working so much, I often got stressed and it made my asthma worse. I would take time off – but the thing is, I couldn’t really take off, if you understand. I would take sick time, but I couldn’t be out for long. I would get calls and emails while I was at home, and then I would force myself to go back to work, thinking, I don’t want to look like I’m not doing my job, I don’t want to look like I’m slacking off. I would be at work with my chest hurting and feeling dizzy, but I felt if I took more time off my job was at risk, which made the stress – and my asthma – worse.
Our sick time added up per paycheck and wasn’t guaranteed by month or even by year. If you had two sick days earned and you got the flu and needed to be out for three days, your pay got docked for that third day. Even if I could take the judgment from my co-workers and the shame I felt at being sick and not “pulling my weight,” car payments, rent, that doesn’t stop – you can’t take a sick day for that. You kind of start bargaining: Can I afford this? But where does your health fall in that equation? What is your health worth on this scale they’ve set up? Is it worth your electric bill? Is it worth groceries? The situation began to change my whole outlook on work and compensation. I was the salaried director of a program and I didn’t expect to make an extra cent for all the mornings I came in early, the lunches I skipped, and the nights I stayed late. But if I didn’t work, they’d calculate what each hour of my salary was worth to them and deduct it from my pay.
My doctor told me to take some short-term disability. Without it, my asthma would likely get worse until it knocked me out of work anyway. I talked to my bosses, did the paper work, got everything in order. Then they called me in right before I took my leave and let me go. They said it was an agency problem, not me, but I felt like they couldn’t say it was because I was sick. I couldn’t believe it. I let my health go because I was afraid to lose my job, and then I lost my health and I lost my job anyway.
A few months after that, I picked up and drove to California. I got Reiki-certified and I’m focused on holistic healing, healing yourself. I went to acupuncture school. I still love kids, so I substitute teach. I don’t want a 9-5. That’s my whole motto now – no more 9-5. I’m going to make money doing what I like doing. I do gig life. I lowered my cost of living, stayed in a communal home, streamlined everything, and I feel beyond happy. I see more of the world and I find my way through it by healing. The laws, the rules, the regulations, these things that companies are allowed to do, I can’t sit with that anymore. I want to use my voice to heal for the people coming up so they can know that living isn’t just having a job or making a paycheck, or that false sense of security from a salaried position. That can go away really, really quickly.
Should I go to work or should I take care of myself: these aren’t questions people should be asking themselves. I work better when I’m healthy, and everyone else does too. All people, not just a select few, need the option to take time off work to care for themselves and their families. It’s a fundamental right that should extend to everyone, regardless of their gender or background. People can’t give their work the effort it needs until they have what the need to thrive, too. And we need a real change.
Shenell Sowers is an activist with the Make It Work campaign, which works to advance economic security for women, men, and families across the country. She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.