Parents need paid sick leave

Posted Nov. 16, 2009, at 6:23 p.m.

I learned a lot as a teacher of toddlers. I learned how to help 2-year-olds share. I learned how fascinating it was to watch a toddler have a “first ever” experience, which would happen several times in one day. And I learned that I was incredibly fortunate to be trusted by parents with the care of their precious child.

In my work as a child care provider, I also recognized that some parents had jobs that would allow them to take responsible care of their children when they came down with the cold or flu, but that many did not.

When kids are sick, they need their parents. But for too many Maine families, taking a sick day to pick up a child from day care means loss of needed pay, or even a write-up or penalty at work. As a teacher, I recognized the struggle these parents were going through, and I knew what was happening when flustered parents dropped off a child at day care whose fever had just broken. I’ve come to recognize the signs of a child’s fever suppressed with Motrin. Sadly, this often results in illness among more children in my care.

What all parents need is the basic protection of paid sick days at work so they can care for themselves or their family when the inevitable routine illness strikes. Right now, during the H1N1 flu pandemic, which is striking children the hardest, this protection is a critical safety net: for the kids, for the public health and for my child care business.

During this dangerous H1N1 influenza pandemic, when a child is sick or the entire facility closes, children simply must stay home. And to do that, parents should be able to meet this basic need of health and safety without having to worry about their jobs.

That’s why I support Maine Senate President Libby Mitchell’s bill to establish a basic protection of paid sick days for all workers. The bill will provide up to three paid sick days at small businesses of less than 25 employees, and up to about six days at larger businesses. It won’t cost employers a lot, but it will protect kids in my care from transmission of the cold, a stomach virus and, most critically, the pandemic flu.

Some suggest that paid sick days aren’t needed because most employers already provide paid sick days. But the fact is, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, more than 245,000 Maine workers lack a single paid sick day. Some big companies that offer the time often leave out significant groups, such as part-timers or those newer to the job. And, for some, using the time you’ve earned may still result in getting disciplined or even fired.

Some suggest that whether or not an employee gets sick days should be up to the employer’s discretion. But the H1N1 flu doesn’t discriminate. Every child needs protection.

Some suggest that the cost of providing three paid sick days to their workers is just too great. But as someone who has had to close down my entire business for several days to allow children to recover from a contagious illness, I can tell you that those costs are already being incurred. In this case, my business is paying for yours. That’s not right. When it comes to public health, we all must share the responsibility. Besides, it’s much less expensive to provide paid sick days on occasion then the loss of productivity when illness shuts down an entire workplace.

My experiences as a teacher in early child care made me painfully aware of the lack of support available to some families. When illness strikes, families are left with an impossible choice: care for my children or keep my job. This simply should not be a question a parent should ever have to ask.

These facts add up to one thing: an impossible choice for parents, and it means more risk of H1N1. Maine lawmakers need to pass this bill, guaranteeing to all workers what smart employers already offer — paid sick days to protect yourself, business productivity and the public health.

Jessica Bickford is a case manager at a child care center in Bangor.

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