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August 6, 2020

Time Off to Care: Melissa’s Story

Melissa Alexander is a 16-year resident of Prince William County and devoted wife, teacher, mother and caregiver. Melissa cared for her mother for two years before her death while she was seriously ill. Melissa’s 97-year-old great aunt has also lived with her family for over a decade so that they can care for her. Through her mother’s illness and caring for her great aunt, Melissa has depleted all of her leave as a teacher in Fairfax County and has taken unpaid leave, which forced her family to make many challenging adjustments.

None of this prepared Melissa and her husband Joe for the devastating news they received on December 14, 2014, when their then eight-year-old daughter, Julia, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Joe is the family’s primary wage earner and carries their health insurance policy, so once again Melissa took up the role of primary caregiver.

“My husband and I had to spend way too many nights fretting over how to make ends meet — time that we wish we could have spent focusing solely on what is most important: showering our daughter with love while she suffered in ways no child should have to.”

Melissa Alexander

However, this time Melissa faced much more than the loss of a few days’ pay. As a new employee with the Prince WIlliam County School system, she quickly used all of her available paid leave and the maximum 30 days of donated paid leave from generous colleagues. Melissa felt lucky to have compassionate and accommodating school administrators who did everything in their power to keep her on staff. But, a little over three months after her daughter’s diagnosis, Melissa had to take a one-year leave of absence to get Julia through treatments, some of which required moving to Philadelphia for months at a time.

The one-year leave turned into two as Julia continued to battle cancer. Thankfully, her treatment went well and she is now a happy and active 9th grader. But, after two years away from work, Melissa had to take a job at a different school, in a different district, for less pay. When a spot opened up at her old school, she had to apply as a new employee. Melissa and Joe continue to carefully monitor Julia’s health and care for Melissa’s great aunt.

Paid time off to care

Families paid low wages should not have to decide between earning income to pay for basic needs or taking time off to manage a health crisis.

Statewide PFML: A Critical Step Toward Racial, Economic, and Health Equity
The Commonwealth Institute

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