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I gamble for a living. It’s a weird way to make money, but we’re living in weird times. I used to do something normal. I went to work every day for the man, I collected a paycheck, and I went home to my now ex-wife. I waited until later in life to have kids. When the babies were born, I was allowed zero time off as a new father — not just “no paid time,” but zero time. My wife had to have an emergency C-section with my son and there was no time around it — no time to be home and help her, to bond with my kid. I ended up having to quit the job. I explained to them what I would need as a new father and then I took a small severance and resigned, which should tell you how well that conversation went.
I became a single dad shortly after my kids were born. I would have liked to have some time off to acclimate to having kids in the first place, and then to handling all the inevitabilities of divorce, including, most of all, becoming a single dad. But as a new parent and a new father in America, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Once I quit working the 9-5 that was really 7 AM to 10 PM, I started putting together lower-paying jobs that ate up a lot of time in different ways. I ended up working part-time for a moving company and looked up and realized I was making less an hour than I was spending on daycare. How did we get into this situation where we have to work overtime just to put food on the table, for families we can’t eat with because we have to be at work?
As a whole, nationally, family leave should be mandated, and instead it’s a privilege reserved for the very few or the very lucky or the very willing to do whatever it takes and pick up the consequences down the line. People do things like put kids in unsafe situations because they don’t have day care. Minimum wage is so subpar it’s not even funny. No one should have to work such insanely long, hard hours each week to provide for their families, worrying the whole time about whether all that work is helping or hurting.
How did we get into this situation where we have to work overtime just to put food on the table, for families we can’t eat with because we have to be at work?
I got injured on the job working for the moving company — missed 3 months of work. Even with workman’s comp we were going under; I got about half my take-home pay. As soon as the doctor said I could return to light duty I went back full time, which is when I realized the moving company didn’t have “light duty,” and they can fire you at the end of 13 weeks if you can’t return to work at 100 percent capacity. I wasn’t at 100 percent capacity, but I wanted to fight to keep my job. That’s how I found out about arbitration.
Arbitration is a thing that would be a hilarious joke if it weren’t a heartbreaking swan song for the American working class. Some jobs — including the one I worked at — require you to go through arbitration if you feel you were wrongfully terminated, meaning that an “independent” negotiator who is paid by your employer will decide whether or not you should have been fired. To enter into the negotiation process, you as an individual must also pay the arbitrator, a sum that can amount to a month’s rent for a single dad. Then you shell out, separately, money to pay for a lawyer, and if you lose, you have to pay the lawyer back for the time as well. You could set yourself back thousands of dollars, and they’re betting you can’t afford to take that risk.
I gamble for a living so I can tell you as a professional they’re right. I couldn’t afford to take the risk, so I took a loss and walked instead. It was less risky to leave the job than to fight for my right to keep it.
Instead of seeing the economy and employers get better over time, instead of seeing them become more supportive and more forward-thinking about work and family, it’s gotten worse. I look back at my parents’ experience in the workforce and I feel like employers were more understanding. These days, employees are pretty much a number. It’s all about the bottom line. If you need a day off, too bad; if you have to beg for a day off, it’s without pay.
If we had some basic protections in the workplace — paid sick days, paid parental leave, affordable child care — I’d go back to the traditional workforce in a heartbeat. Being self-employed is, to put it mildly, stressful. I’ve made choices between health insurance and rent, between rent and groceries, between gas and the electric bill. But the one thing I do have control over is my time. And as a professional poker player, all I can do right now is bet that my kids need my time more than a company does, and that my time is worth more to them than the extra money I might otherwise bring in, and let it ride.
Chris Davis is an activist with the Make It Work campaign, which works to advance economic security for women, men, and families across the country. He lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.