A Working Mom's Guide to Sick Kids

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A Lack of Laws

working from home

Ericka McConnell

Staying home to take care of a sick child is just not possible for many of the more than 40 million working people who don't have a single day of sick leave, paid or unpaid, for themselves or to care for a child. Some parents who are allowed time off fear that actually taking it will send a message that they're not serious about their work. And this May, a study published in Pediatrics found that in 57 percent of cases, child-care directors send children home unnecessarily because of mild illnesses, making the need for paid sick time even more evident.

"It's both puzzling and unacceptable that we trumpet the importance of family values as a society, yet we have fewer policies in place to aid working families than any other advanced industrial nation in the world," says Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families.

Yes, we have the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which gives employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave. It allows them to care for a newborn or a newly adopted child or a child recently placed in foster care. It also allows them to care for themselves or a child, a spouse, or a parent when they're very sick. "Because the FMLA is meant to cover serious illness, it doesn't cover time off for more routine, short-term illnesses like strep throat or flu," explains Linda Meric, national director of 9to5 National Association of Working Women, which advocates for family-friendly workplace policies. What's more, to be eligible, your company must have 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius, and you need to have worked there for at least a year -- and those guidelines alone rule out 40 percent of private-sector workplaces.

In the meantime, many other nations provide the kind of sick-care alternatives that most Americans can only dream about. A recent study of 190 countries by researchers at Harvard and McGill Universities found that 163 nations guarantee paid sick leave. The Netherlands offers two years. New moms in 177 countries are guaranteed paid leave; 74 countries offer it for new dads. Forty-nine nations guarantee paid time off to parents to care for sick children.

"Not only does the U.S. lag behind almost every developed nation when it comes to flexible leave policies and other family supports, it ranks well below many low- and middle-income countries too," says Jody Heymann, M.D., Ph.D., founding director of McGill University?s Institute for Health and Social Policy and lead author of the study.

Right now, 19 states are considering bills requiring businesses to offer a certain number of paid sick days per year depending on how long an employee has worked. (Those states are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont.) So far, only three cities (San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee) have actually passed such legislation. As a result, parents wind up taking a sick child to work with them if the boss allows, or they ask an older sibling to miss school and stay home, or they give a feverish child some acetaminophen, send him off to school, and hope the nurse doesn't call.

"No one should have to choose between their child and their livelihood," says Dr. Heymann, author of Raising the Global Floor. Parents who are high enough up the career ladder or fortunate to work for a family-friendly company often don't have to choose. But those in low-wage jobs (including child-care providers and restaurant and hotel workers, who have the least amount of flexibility) usually do. In a 2008 study by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, 16 percent said that they or a family member had been fired, suspended, punished, or threatened with firing if they missed work due to personal or family illness.

"This is an issue for all of us," says Dr. Heymann. "Even if you're able to stay home, you still have to worry about all the other parents who can?t or won't." In May 2009, the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) reintroduced the Healthy Families Act, which would establish for the first time that all employers with 15 or more employees provide one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. Workers can also use these days to care for a close relative (child, spouse, or parent), go to doctor appointments, or have medical tests. (At press time, it still hadn't been brought before Congress for a vote, but you can show your support for local campaigns and contact Congress at paidsickdays.org.) Meanwhile, working parents have to navigate their own path.

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