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.
Turns out it was bigger than he imagined.
"They didn't pay me for that day. And then they punished me for taking it," Paz said. He returned to the job site the next day, but the boss said there was no work for him, and he had to wait for weeks before the boss gave him a gig at another site, he said.
And it's a vicious circle: While parents worry about keeping their jobs, teachers are online and (rightfully) worrying about masses of sick children doped up on cold medicine and sent to class anyhow.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I gave my older son cough syrup and marched him off to school after a night of coughing. He didn't have a fever, and I desperately needed the day to write. I apologized to the teacher and tried not to meet any other parents' eyes when I told her to call me if he seemed sick.
I read a discussion board on which young doctors were debating whether to come in and work their rotations -- even if they or their kids were horrendously ill -- because they feared the reprisals for not pulling their shifts.
Moms running short on sick days have been posting desperate pleas on my local mommy Web site for phone numbers of babysitters willing to care for a sick child.
Tykeshia Oates, a home health-care worker in the District, doesn't get any paid sick leave. The company she has been with for almost three years doesn't offer it. Her fellow workers recently unionized and are fighting for better benefits, but in the meantime, she solves those bedside dilemmas with her five kids by relying on her mom to take sick leave from her job and care for them.
"I just couldn't take the time off," Oates said. "And I'm also afraid of losing my job if I do it."
Although local policies exist in some areas, no state has passed mandatory paid sick-leave legislation. In the District, an otherwise good bill passed last year excludes restaurant workers (Do you really want them sneezing into your salad?) and anyone who has been in a job less than a year. Oates's company is fighting for an exemption to the law. Maryland allows workers with paid leave to use it to care for a sick child.
Congress has yet to pass the Healthy Families Act, guaranteeing all workers seven paid sick days.
While the federal government is urging us to stay home if we're ill and to keep sick kids out of school, the lack of a similar mandate on helping us be responsible germ carriers is no more effective than that giant slug of cold medicine given to a truly sick child.
If any good can come of the swine flu, it would be a comprehensive change in federal sick-leave policy that wouldn't push low-wage workers closer to poverty with every cough or sore throat.
And wouldn't it be great to use those babysitter numbers for date nights instead?
E-mail me your sick-day dilemmas at http://email@example.com