Well, I’m sorry it’s come to a pandemic for them to see the reality. It is my hope that this has finally sunk in and that we move forward in a smart way. I remember talking to a Safeway employee six or seven years ago who was working in the deli department and was obviously, visibly sick. I said, “Are you okay?”
And she said, “I can’t stay home. I don’t have any sick leave.”
I remember thinking, “Oh my god, she’s sitting here in a deli.” Everybody should think of that—workers at delis, grocery stores, hotels. Wouldn’t you rather they were home getting paid sick leave than here risking spreading it to everyone else?
One of the things that’s striking to me, as a citizen, is how disadvantaged we are here in the United States—in terms of dealing with this crisis—because we don’t have some of the things, like paid sick leave, that other developed countries have. We’re suffering now because of legislation we didn’t get passed decades ago.
Without a doubt. Without a doubt. All of these things that we have been told cost too much or are too radical are now coming home to roost with this pandemic.
Do you think that’s registering, especially with your Republican colleagues who have been resistant to these kinds of federal programs?
I think it is sinking in. People used to think, “Oh, that’s someone else’s problem.” But in a pandemic like this, they realize that someone else affects them. If that person is sick, they’re making other people sick. If a business can’t function, that has an impact. These kinds of social programs and policies are good for businesses, so that we don’t end up in the situation we’re in now.
Have any of those Republicans or even Democrats who resisted this said, “You were right”?
Well, no one here is very good at saying, “Oh my gosh, you were right.” Which is fine; I can take it! But they are all of a sudden sensing the need for this. It becomes personal for every single person in this country. It’s well and good for the mandate to be out there—“stay home if you’re sick.” But too many workers know it doesn’t apply to them because they can’t afford it.
You were a preschool teacher. Other women who serve in Congress, and in particular women elected in 2018, don’t come from traditional political backgrounds. Several I can think of are former nurses or are activists or veterans. At a time like this, how valuable is it to have those voices in Washington?
I was just talking with someone about the fact that women work in professions with their mother hat on. We’re thinking about other people. This conversation happened to be in the context of our own workplace in the Senate; I find a lot of the senators are thinking about themselves, but she and I were thinking about the staffers and workers in the Senate who have to be there because we are here. These are people who themselves have families. I said to her, “You sound like a mom.” And she said, “That’s just how we operate.”
But I think overall, women do see things in terms of communities and have experiences that inform that. Women tend to be the people in their families who take kids or parents to the doctor. It’s intuitive to us to think about these things on a personal level.
After we get through this, do you think America will be ready to have a fundamentally different conversation about programs like paid leave and universal health care?
I think so. We obviously live in a country that is very dependent on private companies and profits. We all benefit from that. But the question we have to ask ourselves now is: How do we develop an infrastructure that makes sure all Americans are safe?
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Mattie Kahn is the culture director at Glamour.