by Meredith O’Brien
One of my children was recently diagnosed with swine flu and missed a week of school. That’s just the icing on the cake as far as sickness and kids go in my house these days. Between my swine flu kid (who’s one half of an 11-year-old set of twins), and my 8-year-old, at least one child has been out of school due to a cold or some kind of health ailment during almost every week of this young school year. It’s been one sick day after another, and that’s not including the six half days the kids’ve already had. I haven’t actually quantified the number of days when I’ve had at least one sick kid at home, but between the sick days, half days and handful of vacation days, I know that we’re talking a substantial chunk of my work hours over the past few weeks.
This year, more than any other school year, I’ve felt absolutely blessed to be able to work from home, have a flexible schedule and the ability to make up the time at night after the kids are in bed or on weekends. If I worked in an office or off-site somewhere, I’d likely have already been reprimanded and/or considered a less-than-dedicated professional for having missed a substantial slice of my weekday hours because I’ve had to be home with sick children, or because there’s a half day of school. Yes, it’s true that I have a husband and that if I were working in an office that wasn’t located inside my house we’d be obliged to divvy up all these days, sick, half and the lot. However since I do work from my domicile, it’s simply easier for me to take the kids to their sick doctor visits, bring them their boxes of plush tissues and deliver trays of soup and beverages to them as they lie wanly in my bed watching Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel or ESPN with their glassy, cold/flu eyes.
What do other parents who don’t work from home, who don’t have flexible schedules or sick days do when their kids – as in more than one child -- get sick, on different days, particularly in the time of swine flu (never mind being home for a half dozen half days of school)? A New York Times story () provided an ugly answer: Parents whose companies offer no or few paid sick days wind up sending their kids to school  even if the children are ill and report to work themselves when they’re sick, even when the illness in question is the H1N1/swine flu, about which the federal government has declared a national emergency :
“Tens of millions of people, or about 40 percent of all private-sector workers, do not receive paid sick days, and as a result many of them cannot afford to stay home when they are ill. Even some companies that provide paid sick days have policies that make it difficult to call in sick, like giving demerits each time someone misses a day.
Public health experts say policies like these encourage many people with H1N1, commonly called swine flu, to report to work despite official warnings from the government and most companies that they should stay home.”
The Times then quoted a mother who came down with swine flu, after her 6-year-old had wrestled with it, and went in to work anyway because she couldn’t afford to take the day off. Many folks, from office workers to the wait staff serving you your coffee, feel compelled to report to work sick, and send their kids to school sick if they fear that their jobs are at stake if they forgo work in order to tend to the ill.
What are officials doing about this conundrum? During the various rounds of Capitol Hill negotiations in which legislative leaders are attempting to cobble together a federal health insurance reform bill that’ll muster enough votes in the House and Senate to pass, an attempt to tie a provision to health care reform which’d mandate that businesses with more than 15 employees to offer seven paid sick leave days  per year per employee has been dust-binned, NPR reported. Just last week, a stand-alone bill called the “Emergency Influenza Containment Act ” was filed in the House  which, if passed, would mandate that employers with at least 15 employees provide five paid sick days a year, though it makes no specific provisions for parents caring for sick children. (So you could get sick, but when your kid -- or kids -- get sick and it exceeds five days, tough luck. Just my single swine flu kid would’ve eaten up all five sick days in one fell swoop.) While a mega-health care reform bill and the future of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan suck up all the oxygen in Washington, who knows if something like this can gain any serious traction as the number of those infected with swine flu – including among the high-risk population of school children – grows by the day.
A Milwaukee second grade teacher recently wrote an op/ed in the Journal-Sentinel asserting that if people are serious about containing contagious diseases like H1N1  and don’t want sick children sent to school where they can expose other students, faculty and staff to illness, paid parental sick leave is a necessity. “What happens now is not fair to sick kids or their parents, and it’s not fair to the rest of the students or the teachers,” wrote teacher Stili Klikizos. “Harsh economic conditions are compelling parents to send their sick kids to school. This is how the epidemic spreads.”
The solution? “Guaranteed paid sick leave,” Klikizos said. “If a parent can stay home with a sick child without fear of losing wages, much less a job, then we can help quarantine the swine flu. Most advanced industrialized countries have paid sick leave. By not having it, we in the United States are accelerating the pace of this global epidemic.”
If there were paid sick days and we could eliminate the odious half days of school (the bane of working parents and a pet peeve of mine), then I know I’d definitely be of a much healthier mind and body.