Speaking of Women's Rights: More Hand-Washing Won’t Protect Family Economic Security

Thursday, November 12, 2009

More Hand-Washing Won’t Protect Family Economic Security

How many of you know someone who has been sick in the past month?

If we were standing in a room together, chances are, every single person would have his or her hand up. This week alone, in my son’s classroom of 29 kids, 14 were out sick – as well as the teacher. Nationally, at least 600 schools have had temporarily closures – including 351 schools last week alone, affecting 126,000 students in 19 states.

The sensible advice, of course, is to keep your sick child home – or to stay home if you yourself are sick. But what if your family cannot afford for you to do so?

Consider these facts:
  • Only 61% of private sector employees have access to sick pay for their own illness or injury, and nearly half (47%) of working women in the private sector (approximately 21 million) are not able to take a paid sick day when they are ill.

  • The lower a worker’s wage, the less likely she or he is to have access to paid sick leave. (See chart here.) More than half (59%) of minimum wage workers are women.

  • Industries with some of the most public contact – retail trade, accommodations and food service (which are also the industries that employ the most women) – are also the least likely to offer paid sick days. More than half (55%) of retail workers and (78%) of accommodations and food service workers lack paid sick days.

  • Even when workers have access to sick leave, they may not be able to use it to care for their family member’s illness. (In Washington State, the Family Care Act does allow workers with available paid sick leave or other paid time off to use that leave to care for sick children, and, in certain limited circumstances, also for other ill family members.)

It’s a Catch-22 for working families: either (1) go to work sick (and send your kids to school sick) and spread illness, or (2) don’t go to work and lose pay – or worse, your job.

Legislation such as the Healthy Families Act, which would provide seven sick days a year to workers in companies with 15 or more employees, would help eliminate this economic insecurity. The Obama Administration recently announced its support for this federal bill.

No longer having to worry that your food service worker is spreading H1N1, because she couldn’t afford to stay home? Helping sick kids get better, without their parents having to risk their jobs? This kind of policy sounds like just what the doctor ordered.

If you have faced a conflict between your work and family responsibilities because of H1N1 or other illness, please tell us your story.