Paid sick leave for the worker can benefit all

By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The coughing starts in the middle of the night. And while you are watching your child's poor little body in footed pajamas curl up with every hacking spasm, you are doing the calculations in your head, realizing that you are absolutely hosed if you miss work the next day.

I've been there so many times. Practically every working parent I know has.

Whether it's a dwindling stockpile of sick days, the risk of no pay, a crucial presentation, a testy boss or a volatile job market deep inside a recession, that bedside decision of whether to stay home with a sniffly kid or send him to school has a new sense of urgency this year.

In a world where hand sanitizers and masks are handed out at work and the president has declared H1N1 a national emergency, parents who cannot afford to miss a day of work and send their kids to school despite signs of illness are putting other children at risk.

"It's serious now, and that changes everything," said Susan Arritt, a freelance editor and writer who lives in Northern Virginia. If Arritt doesn't work, she doesn't get paid. She also doesn't get any sick leave, which puts her in the same boat as a third of our nation's workers.

A full day of pay is a huge factor for a single mom on a tight budget, she told me. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is telling parents to keep kids out of school for at least 24 hours after a child's fever is gone.

Before this year, Arritt often sent her 5-year-old daughter to school when the child had the sniffles.

"I felt guilty about that. But I think I was more able to just close my eyes back then," Arritt said.

"But now, I don't want to be passing things around. She coughs frequently. It's so hard to figure out. My daughter's been home three days already this year, and that's just so hard on me," she said.

Three days of missed pay is huge when your margins are thin. And in some cases, just one day off can translate into weeks without pay.

Felix Paz, 22, took his 2-year-old daughter to the hospital when she had a fever earlier this year.

He missed a day at his job in concrete reinforcement, for a company he's been with for five years. He makes $12 an hour, and with an income that modest, one missed day is huge.

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