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Working Parents, Sick Days

Moms and dads work. One could take that sentence to mean it’s work to get children from birth to adulthood, and it is, but in truth, moms and dads work jobs that are outside the parameters of raising children. It’s a reality of today’s family life that few of us manage to get by with just a father’s income to pay for rent or a mortgage, buy groceries and fill the gas tank.

Think about it: Do you know families who live on one income from one parent’s job? No baby-sitting, no part-time job at a family business, no late-night computer data entry, no earned income at all. There aren’t too many anymore.

According to a survey from 2002 by the U.S. Census Bureau, only 7 percent of families have one parent who earns no outside income. In addition, more families than ever are headed by a single person, mostly mothers, who must work because there is no other wage earner in the home.

Yet, family life continues as it has for eons. Children grow and play and they also get sick and someone needs to care for them. More often than not, that’s Mom or Dad.

That’s where things can get really difficult. A survey by a thermometer manufacturer found 50 percent of those who responded had been forced to take unpaid days off to care for sick children. About a third of the responders also said they had lied to their employers about why they were staying home, rather than admit they were caring for sick children, in order to avoid trouble at work.

Dozens of people were informally interviewed for this story. They talked in coffee shops and classrooms, outside the buildings of some major Milwaukee employers, at the grocery store and in church, among other places. They responded to requests for stories on Facebook, Twitter and MilwaukeeMoms.com. None would admit to ever having lied to an employer about taking a day off to care for a sick child. Only one woman said she felt forced to lie to her previous boss but wouldn’t go on record.

So is it really hard to figure out how to care for a child and still keep your boss happy? The answer to that question, from people interviewed for this story, was a resounding “yes.” The thermometer company’s survey found that a third of responders had sent their child to school or daycare, even when the child was sick. That’s something Jennifer Pennington, a West Milwaukee teacher, admitted doing in a pinch.

Pennington recalls one time her husband was unable to take a day off and it was exam time for her high school students so staying home wasn’t an option for her either. “I just had to load them up with Tylenol in the morning and hope to God they made it through the day.”

Pennington says the West Milwaukee School District does not give teachers vacation days but they do get 10 sick days. They are able to use those either for themselves or for the care of a family member, without penalty. However, Pennington doesn’t feel all that badly about sending her kids to care or school if they aren’t too sick.

“You know, kids get sick,” Pennington says. “If it’s not my kids, it’s some others. I never felt too guilty about it.”

Kenosha father Jeremy Harrop sends his daughter to her grandparents’ home if she’s too sick for daycare and neither he nor his fiancée can stay home. Harrop often stays home when his daughter is sick. While he’s never lied to his employer about why he stayed home, the first time he had to take a day off to care for her, he didn’t really think about being specific about the reason.

“I called in and said I had to take a sick day and no one really asked any questions,” Harrop says.

Since then, Harrop has left it up to his manager to enter the reason he stayed home but if he does it himself, he always makes sure to enter it into the computer as a vacation day.

“I want to save those sick days for when I’m the one who’s actually sick,” he says.

Gretchen Thomas is a Wauwatosa mother of two who says her manager trusts her and allows her to do what she needs to care for her children, as long as she makes up the time. That wasn’t always the case.

Thomas says her previous employers have not been family-friendly workplaces. While she technically had sick time available at all her previous jobs, employees were not encouraged to take it.

“There are deadlines and clients,” Thomas explains. “If you have to stay home, you’re expected to check e-mail and participate in conference calls.”

Thomas says that includes days when parents have to clean up vomit, wipe drippy noses or race to the pediatrician’s office. She  remembers a time she had to take a call in a back room at home when her son started crying.

“I was panicking because the mute on my phone wasn’t working,” Thomas says. “I finally had to just ask that I call right back, but I was under professional pressure to not reveal that I was at home with a sick child.”

Naturally, Thomas says it made her feel horrible.

“It ripped my heart out to hear my son crying in the next room. I felt like I was choosing my career over my child,” she says. “It felt like it went on and on even though it was probably about four minutes.”

In many cases, it’s perhaps easier for salaried workers to manage their sick time. Hourly workers and those in jobs that depend on their on-site presence can find it much more difficult to care for a sick child and keep their job. One mom says her husband’s job in construction is not at all flexible. That means she has to take the day off when there is a sick child at home, but luckily her employers have been mostly understanding.

In Milwaukee, voters approved a measure in 2008 that requires private employers in the city to let workers earn up to nine days of sick leave. Workers would earn up to one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours they work. They could earn up to nine days total at larger companies and five days at businesses with 10 or fewer employees. The leave could be used for the worker or to care for family members.

Dana Schultz, an organizer for 9to5 Wisconsin, says sick leave is a key element to keeping low-income people working. 9to5 primarily works to benefit low-wage workers and the welfare-to-work population. They find that when people can earn the ability to stay home, get well and still keep their job, they tend to stay in the job rather than quit showing up.

Schultz says it’s good for everyone’s health if workers can stay home to care for themselves or their families when they need to. In cities where similar legislation has already passed, organizations that were initially opposed to it are starting to change their tune, such as the Golden Gate Restaurant Association in San Francisco.

“It’s proven that it’s good for public health, especially around food preparation, which is a big employer for our population,” Schultz says.

A Wisconsin judge ordered an injunction against the sick leave ordinance in 2009 after a challenge by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. MMAC has claimed the ordinance will hurt businesses because of the added cost of the sick days. The Wisconsin State Court of Appeals recently overturned the injunction and the ordinance could become reality for thousands of workers. However the challenges aren’t all over yet. Wisconsin state lawmakers have introduced a bill to make the ordinance impossible to enact. Two of the sponsors of the bill were contacted for comment for this story but neither returned those requests.

Type in “sick leave and kids” into a search engine online and you’ll get thousands of responses with everything from advice for good lies to legitimate tips and ways to manage the situation. Working parents are in a tough bind no matter what they do; sick children need care and bills need to get paid. At least more and more of us are in the same seasick boat.

This story originally appeared in the May 2011 edition of metroparent magazine.

1 Comment for "Working Parents, Sick Days"

  1. I was just let go from a job because I had to take sick days for my children. I worked for a major hospital in the area and unfortunately both of my children came down with the stomach flu twice, and then my son came down with strep throat and then I came down with strep throat. I do not have family in the area and had to stay home. They specifically let me go because of absence. Their policy is you can only have 5 unplanned absences a year. Well both stomach flus took day number 4 and then the first day my son was home with strep was day number 5. The second day I was home with my son with strep was the dagger. Funny enough none of us have been sick since but it did not matter. And this is in a hospital where there is lots of chances for catching something.

    mominpewaukee May 10, 2011 12:20 PM

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