It’s no secret that employer policies on family leave and paid sick time is woefully inadequate in America. For thousands of women and men, a lack of paid leave means the difference between caring for a child and sending him or her off to daycare or school ill.
For some parents, fear of losing their jobs over a child’s illness can lead to some very dedicated means to take time off.
Wendi Jacob, the director of Lil’ Critters Child Care in Hillsboro, Oregon, can tell a much more extreme story. She called the parents of one 14-month-old who started throwing up after naptime to ask them to come get their child. Neither could: The father had recently started a new job and was afraid he’d be fired. The mother had been home the previous week with the child’s older sibling, and her boss told her she’d be docked pay if she left again. “So this mom stuck her finger down her throat and vomited all over her office carpet,” says Jacob. “The boss sent her home sick, and she was able to pick up her child.”
Sound over the top? Yes. But these women’s situations illustrate the lengths working parents must go to when their carefully calibrated child-care arrangements fall apart. Many use all of their resources to get through a typical day and have little flexibility and no Plan B — no grandparent, friend, or neighbor to step in if a child is ill.
Lack of paid leave doesn’t just affect the family or child in question. Because of lack of back up support and an inability to miss work, children often go to daycare or school ill, spreading the sickness to his or her peers, forcing new families into the same quandry of missing work for a sick child.
Jenni Ellis, an Atlanta mom and founder of social networking site for working moms Mom @ Work, says that if her son wakes up sick her first plan is to stay home with him. If there is a reason she must go to work, then she calls one of the three people that she has arranged with in advance to be “on call” in case she needs them to stay with her son. If none of the people “on call” are available to help, then she calls a professional babysitter who will come to her house and stay with her son for the day. “While I would love to always be at home with my son when he is sick, it is not always possible.”
Parents, like Ellis, also rely on a school’s sick policies and the enforcement of those policies to keep the healthy kids from getting sick in the first place. Parents can easily find out what a school or daycare’s sick policies are and how they handle children who get sick while in their care.
Schools and daycares should routinely reinforce their guidelines for keeping a sick child at home in order to protect the health of the other children, their families and teachers. Schools should also have a clear policy on communicating with the families if there is an illness outbreak in a class and/or the entire school.
“As the parent of a child in daycare, I must say that I am blessed that my day care provider is very good at either sending a sick child home or not allowing a sick child to come in that day,” says Ellis. “My daycare, like every other, does have parents that push the limits. I engage those parents in conversation about the child and his/her illness. I tend to drop in a remark about a time when it was difficult to make arrangements to keep my child home, but I did because I knew it was not only good for my child, but I didn’t want my child to spread anything to other children. Through this conversation I can find out more about the child’s illness and watch for signs and symptoms in my own child, and, as terrible as this sounds, hopefully the parent will think twice before sending their sick child to school.”
Still, the issue obviously lays with unsupportive workplaces and lack of leave laws, not with parents who don’t want to be home with their children. And employers support the idea of sick leave as well.
The survey of over 700 employers and nearly 2,000 employees found that two-thirds of employers support the law. It is rare for employees to misuse paid sick days and employees tend to save them for a rainy day using much fewer than the maximum allotment.
The implementation of the legislation has had public health benefits: One out of eight workers with public contact in workplaces such as restaurants and retail establishments reported that the paid sick days made it less likely for them to come to work when sick.
Hopefully, as the movement to support paid sick leave expands, less parents will be forced to such extreme measures to care for a child.