Editor’s Note: JoAnna Vance is a recovery fellow for the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) West Virginia Economic Justice Project and serves as a West Virginia organizer for the Recovery Advocacy Project. She and her family live in Beckley, West Virginia, where she is in long-term recovery from a substance use disorder. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
“‘If I can’t go back home and explain it, I can’t vote for it,’” Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said in a statement Sunday, after announcing he would not vote for President Joe Biden’s signature Build Back Better bill. Can’t explain it? When I heard Manchin say that, my jaw dropped.
Just a few weeks ago, I put my three kids in the car and traveled to Washington, DC from southwestern West Virginia. It was a lot of effort to get the four of us out the door, but I knew it was important that I share my family’s story. It was a wet, cold day outside the United States Capitol, and we were there with other families for a day-long paid family leave event and a virtual meeting with my senator, Manchin.
This was my first time speaking at the Capitol, and I shared my family’s experience of having to choose between work and my husband Edmund’s health. I learned shortly thereafter that Manchin wouldn’t be showing up for our meeting. But I understood exactly how the Build Back Better plan would make a difference for West Virginia families, and I wanted to have that meeting so I could tell him as much.
So, here is what I would have said, had I had the chance.
My husband Edmund was a coal miner. Coal mining is hard work, but he made a good hourly wage — enough to support our three kids. However, Edmund fought a brutal substance use disorder, as many in our community have. In 2017, he did the bravest thing: He sought treatment. For all of us, he prioritized getting better.
If you think substance use is hard, seeking treatment is even harder. Edmund had no paid family and medical leave from the mining company, and there is no state policy in West Virginia providing it either. Getting treatment meant losing his job. Yes, Edmund had to decide between a paycheck and his recovery. His decision resulted in our family losing all of our benefits and going on public assistance.
After treatment, Edmund wasn’t able to return to a high-paying job and had to instead take a job for a landscaping company – making less than half of what he made at the mines. We felt that pay cut every day. We struggled to make sure utilities didn’t get cut off. There were times when we had to take the kids to the doctor and didn’t have the money to fill their prescriptions until payday.
If we hadn’t had support from Edmund’s parents and grandparents, we wouldn’t have made it. And it didn’t need to be that hard. Edmund’s a hard worker. If we’d had access to paid leave, he could have gone back to his job at the mining company, at the higher wage. We weren’t looking for a handout, we just wanted him to be able to get treatment. Edmund wanted to work as a coal miner.
What Manchin may not know is that we are like so many of our fellow West Virginians. We’re proud and committed to our families. We’re serious and generous people, good and caring parents. We are not afraid of hard work. My husband has worked some of the most physically grueling jobs on the planet and has confronted his own demons and won.
Families like mine have been waiting for paid leave for decades and, while I know Sen. Manchin has said that he’d prefer to pass paid leave via bipartisan legislation, longtime leaders in the fight for paid leave, including his colleague Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand from New York, have been clear: The universal, comprehensive paid leave plan that would most benefit West Virginians is unlikely to happen anytime soon outside of what’s been proposed in the Build Back Better bill. The current legislative process through which it might be established, reconciliation, may not be Manchin’s preference, but, given that our state is fighting a substance use epidemic on top of a pandemic, it feels like we can’t afford to wait any longer.
The way I think about politics is less about party and more about integrity and fairness. I think that’s what most of my fellow West Virginians think, too. What I expect from elected leaders representing my state is that they understand our lives and they take steps that help us work, grow and care for our families. Voting for a Build Back Better plan that proud West Virginians like those at United Mine Workers of America support and that 61% of Americans believe in, according to a recent national poll, isn’t sticking your neck out; it’s showing that you’ve got ears and are using them to listen to the folks who sent you to Washington.
Of course, this isn’t just about Edmund and me; it’s about all of our families. Like the woman I met in Washington who told the story of giving birth and going back to work a week later. She only had 15-minute breaks to pump breast milk for her newborn. She hadn’t even healed from childbirth, but she had to be there for a paycheck. Why are we forcing people to make these cruel and impossible decisions? It is the opposite of fair or right.
Here is what I want to make clear: By supporting the Build Back Better bill, including paid family and medical leave, you, Sen. Manchin, have an opportunity to make history for families like mine in West Virginia and for working families across the nation for generations to come. Whether you work in the field picking vegetables, in a plant packing meat, in a mine digging coal, or in a city typing at a desk, you shouldn’t need to rely on luck or wealth to maintain your family’s stability or the dignity of your own work. When Edmund sought treatment, he took a brave step forward. It’s past time for us as a nation to show that same determination: The time has come to take a giant step forward.