Without Workplace Justice, Parents Have No Good Options for Sick Kids

Michelle Chen

He may feel bad now, but when he finds out where the U.S. ranks in providing paid sick leave, he'll feel a lot worse.

Every work­ing par­ent knows what it’s like to have one of those days: a child sud­den­ly comes down with an ill­ness, gets sent home from day­care due to health con­cerns, and with­out a back-up care arrange­ment, the rest of the day has to be tak­en off, thus top­pling over the ten­u­ous work-life bal­ance. Such emer­gen­cies hap­pen all the time, but for low-income fam­i­lies, nei­ther the typ­i­cal work­place, nor gov­ern­ment wel­fare poli­cies, give work­ing par­ents the lee­way and the time they need to care for ill fam­i­ly members.

Accord­ing to a recent sur­vey of par­ents using child­care by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hos­pi­tal Nation­al Poll on Children’s Health, about six out of 10 par­ents said that a child’s ill­ness pre­vent­ed them from attend­ing their reg­u­lar child­care in the past year, with four in 10 report­ing that occurred three or more times dur­ing the year.”

When deal­ing with children’s sud­den ill­ness­es, par­ents run into myr­i­ad bar­ri­ers, accord­ing to the study:

One-half of par­ents with chil­dren in child care report that find­ing alter­na­tive or back-up child care for their sick chil­dren is dif­fi­cult. In addi­tion, about one-third of par­ents say tak­ing time off of work with a sick child is dif­fi­cult because they may lose pay or lose their job, and a sim­i­lar pro­por­tion report that they do not receive enough paid time off from work to care for their sick children.

The lack of options might lead par­ents to seek more imme­di­ate, alter­na­tive forms of care, such as the emer­gency room, rather than reg­u­lar doc­tor care. That could cost the entire health­care sys­tem more in the long run.

The researchers’ key con­clu­sion was that paid leave time at work would allow par­ents to care for their sick chil­dren at home or give par­ents the oppor­tu­ni­ty to go to their child’s usu­al health care provider instead of the emer­gency room.” The fed­er­al Fam­i­ly and Med­ical Leave Act in the­o­ry enables many work­ers unpaid leave to attend to med­ical issues. But the nar­row scope of the law leaves a large por­tion of the work­force uncov­ered, and even those who qual­i­fy don’t get paid time off (so the Unit­ed States remains sin­gu­lar­ly back­ward among rich indus­tri­al­ized nations in fail­ing to guar­an­tee work­ers paid sick leave).

The cam­paigns for paid sick days that com­mu­ni­ty and labor groups have waged in many states and in Wash­ing­ton show that the need for fair leave poli­cies ties into a broad­er demand for work­place justice.

Fam­i­lies Work With­out a Safe­ty Net

While flex­i­ble leave time is crit­i­cal in times of emer­gency, it’s just one piece of an over­all deficit in sup­ports for work­ing-poor fam­i­lies. An under­ly­ing prob­lem is chron­ic short­falls in fed­er­al and state child­care sub­si­dies. Bar­ri­ers to afford­able, high-qual­i­ty child care (day care could cost par­ents sev­er­al thou­sand dol­lars a year) in turn lim­it access to good, sta­ble jobs – just the kind of jobs that tend to pro­vide more rea­son­able leave ben­e­fits. And so the cycle goes.

The fund­ing cri­sis affects mil­lions of low-income chil­dren who rely on gov­ern­ment-sub­si­dized child­care ser­vices offered through state and fed­er­al wel­fare sys­tems. A 2009 report by the racial jus­tice think tank Applied Research Cen­ter detailed the inad­e­qua­cies of sub­si­dized child­care pro­grams dur­ing the eco­nom­ic crisis:

As par­ents are laid off or become under­em­ployed, they tight­en their bud­gets, and many take their chil­dren out of their child­care facil­i­ties and make alter­na­tive arrange­ments — often at the expense of health, safe­ty, and qual­i­ty of care.

Con­ser­v­a­tive wel­fare reform” poli­cies addi­tion­al­ly bur­den low-income par­ents on pub­lic assis­tance with harsh work require­ments. Dr. Andrew Hashikawa, one of the lead researchers for the C.S. Mott sur­vey, tells Work­ing In These Times via email that for house­holds rely­ing on child­care sub­si­dies, the bar­ri­ers to qual­i­ty care are inter­twined with both the high costs of ser­vices and a lack of sol­id jobs with good wages:

Wel­fare [pol­i­cy] requires that par­ents work or are in work-train­ing pro­grams – so child care is an eco­nom­ic neces­si­ty – but many of these jobs… are min­i­mum wage and with­out any sub­stan­tial ben­e­fits, which indi­rect­ly lim­its their options dur­ing a health emergency.

This is an eco­nom­ic jus­tice issue for child­care providers as well, accord­ing to Applied Research Center:

It is com­mon knowl­edge in the child­care indus­try that the true cost of child care is often sub­si­dized by the low wages of child­care work­ers. Low reim­burse­ment rates not only keep employ­ee wages down, but they often make it extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to pro­vide high-qual­i­ty care for children.

The report point­ed out that in Cal­i­for­nia, providers fre­quent­ly go sev­er­al months with­out pay­ment every year as a result of these bud­get delays — many of them at great per­son­al and finan­cial costs that will take years to recov­er from.”

Work­ers Seek­ing Care, Work­ers Giv­ing Care

The nation­wide child­care crunch – for both con­sumers and providers – high­lights the inter­con­nect­ed strug­gles with­in the care sec­tor and the low-income work­force it serves. To achieve eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty, work­ers need jobs with liv­ing wages, equi­table leave poli­cies and sup­ports for child care. When fis­cal pres­sures either lim­it access to care or erode the qual­i­ty of ser­vices, that puts the entire sys­tem at risk, and par­ents and care providers suf­fer. The chil­dren them­selves bear the true cost, par­tic­u­lar­ly if they come from com­mu­ni­ties that strug­gle with inter­gen­er­a­tional pover­ty and seg­re­ga­tion, where ear­ly child­hood devel­op­ment pro­grams are most need­ed.

In recent years labor and women’s advo­ca­cy groups have attempt­ed to broach these twin strug­gles by simul­ta­ne­ous­ly advo­cat­ing for high stan­dards in care­giv­ing as well as equi­ty for the low-wage care work­ers. But in the face of pow­er­ful busi­ness lob­by­ists and polit­i­cal grid­lock, leg­isla­tive pro­pos­als for manda­to­ry paid sick days have met fierce opposition.

Whether par­ents need to take their kids to the doc­tor today, or need afford­able qual­i­ty day­care in the long term, their options are lim­it­ed by politi­cians’ and employ­ers’ hos­til­i­ty to fair work­place poli­cies. And mil­lions of poor chil­dren remain just one bad day away from disaster.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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