When I was 4 weeks old, I almost died.

I couldn’t keep any food down, throwing up everything I ate. The doctor told my mother I was allergic to her breast milk, but despite a change in my diet, the problem continued. At that time, my mother was taking care of my brother and me while attending school, and my father was supporting the family financially, working for a publishing house.

As I continued to lose more weight, my mother felt that she needed my father to step in to get the doctor to pay attention. The two of them went to the doctor together, and my father, banging on a table with both hands, woke them up to the seriousness of the problem: pyloric stenosis, a blockage between my stomach and my intestines, which necessitated surgery.

This is a story from another era, when a patriarchal medical system did not listen to mothers, but the sexism of that time is not why I tell this story. I tell it because I might not be alive today if my father’s job hadn’t allowed him to take paid time off to go to that doctor and bang on that table. With one entry-level income for four of us, losing a couple days of pay was not an option.

The medical system has come a long way since 1967, but rights for workers have not come nearly far enough. Today, there are still 19,000 workers in Portland who do not have paid sick leave, and many more children whose health – indeed, their very survival – is jeopardized because of it.

Over the past two years, my colleagues on the City Council and I have heard the stories of countless workers who are denied the same protections my mother and father had 51 years ago. We heard from a young woman who had to choose between going to work to pay her rent or staying home to recover from a rape. We heard from a parent who sent his sick child to school because he couldn’t afford to stay home. A daughter told of her elderly father being attended to by a visibly ill nursing home worker who was unable to take the day off because of the company policy. The attendant begged not to be reported for fear she would lose her job.

I’ve heard doctors plead for their patients who cannot get time off from work to get their children immunized, and nurses who stand by the bedsides of people dying of communicable diseases that paid sick leave can prevent from spreading.

Hearing from Portland people who took time to appear before the Health and Human Services Committee led its determined and passionate chair, Belinda Ray, with her colleagues Councilors Pious Ali and Brian Batson, to unanimously pass a paid sick leave ordinance that will ensure those 19,000 workers in Portland can take a day off when they get sick or need to care for a loved one. It will be up for a final vote by the full council Monday.

Some say we should scrap our ordinance and allow the state to pass a similar measure making its way through the Legislature. While the state bill is good in many ways, and I hope it passes, it is not good enough for Portland. It leaves an estimated 9,000 Portland workers with no coverage. These are our lowest-wage, most vulnerable workers, who are disproportionately women and immigrants. It also has very few protections for those it does cover, opening the door for retaliation against workers who take paid time off.

Most egregious is that once the state law passes, it takes away the freedom for any municipality to create stronger protections down the road. So we must act now if we want to make sure all our workers are protected in the future.

The local ordinance will ensure that Portland workers are treated with dignity and respect. It will also safeguard public health by protecting families from having to make terrible choices. On Monday, I hope Portland becomes the first city in Maine to ensure all its residents have this basic human right.

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