Welcome to the wonderful re-launch of The Two-Penny Soapbox. Some things may look different, but the content will remain the same; honest, thoughtful and occasionally angsty. I will still be looking at the issues surrounding work/family balance with the occasional anecdote about my crazy family and periodic musings on adoption.
Now for some housekeeping issues:
This new incarnation of my little corner of the universe will (hopefully) remain more structured than previously. Posts will be updated twice a week; once on Monday morning to start your week off right and again on Fridays, just in time to give you reading material for your lazy weekend mornings, waiting for your child's game to start, sitting in line at the movies, or even on the potty....hey, I don't judge. As always, I ask you to keep your comments thoughtful and respectful. I will delete anything I think is inappropriate because, hey, this is my little corner and I can do that.
Now.....without further ado.....let's talk about.....
The flu you ask? What a strange topic for your re-launch. But, as it happens, the flu is very much at the heart of one of the biggest challenges to the work/family balance in America. The flu, especially certain strains, can knock you down for a week or more. It is the concept of being "out sick from work" writ large. In large families it can take ages to travel through everyone, thus extending the time you are quarantined at home. This is a huge problem for any family, but most especially two-income families.
We hear from the CDC and news outlets that we need to stay home if we are sick. Moms outside the school complain when kids are given Tylenol to keep their fever down and sent to school anyway. Bosses lament that their department is all sick, and yet they discourage workers from taking "time off." And lastly, we all lament when more severe flu strains careen through the community because they can be scary and we don't want to increase exposure to those who are vulnerable. What our workplace is reluctant to acknowledge is that when the flu hits, and some strains hit with a vengeance, it can take weeks, even a month or more to get an entire family back to health. What are families, especially two-income families supposed to do in that situation?
Two weeks before Christmas break my middle child, Raindrop, got sick with the flu. She actually was down and back up within three days and only missed 2 days of school total. I work sporadically so I have no problems begging off work to stay home when one of the kids are sick. Then the next week my oldest, Snowflake, got sick. She was really sick. I mean really, really, really sick. I took care of her for 2 days and then I got sick. I got really, really, really sick. Raindrop walked herself to and from school (which is practically in our backyard) while Snowflake and I laid on the couch and despaired at how awful we felt. Meanwhile Starman demolished the house with the flourish of a bored 3 year old while I lay helpless to stop it.
I was home Monday and Tuesday with a sick Snowflake. Wednesday I got sick and by Friday night I was so ill my husband had to take me to the ER where I spent all night getting IV fluids and other fun things. I had the beginnings of pneumonia, severe dehydration and a 104.5 fever WITH fever reducers. He took me in, despite the fact that he had gotten sick himself that morning. Being the end of December he was, of course, out of Paid Time Off (PTO) so had to take the day unpaid.
The following Monday was Snowflake's 9th birthday. Starman was sick now too. Happy Birthday Kid. Sorry your sick. Let's watch our 100th movie. The husband was home again, more missed pay. We were all sick except Raindrop, having already fulfilled her role as "Typhoid Mary." Now by this point we were staring down a missed birthday, Christmas and Christmas Break and no one felt very good at all. The husband dragged himself back to work after three missed days and a weekend. There is a very good possibility that he infected others in his department as he really shouldn't have been back yet, but 3 days of no pay after birthdays and Christmas is enough to throw us into a tailspin when we only have one reliable income, so he went. Three and a half weeks total and we were all starting to feel better and were officially declared not contagious by our doctor.
Now, I only chronicle this whole story to you, my reader, to make a point. It took 3 1/2 weeks....THREE WEEKS.AND THREE DAYS...where someone had to be home with sick kiddos or sick themselves. That wasn't intermittent either. It was 3 weeks straight. And that was just one sickness, what if we had just gotten over something else a month earlier. Now, imagine we are a dual income family. You are paying for childcare regardless of the children are there, school is getting missed and no one is getting paid. How do you do it? No one gets 3 weeks of sick leave. And even if they get 3 weeks of PTO, no one is going to save it all until the end of December, just in case since it is a use it or lose it thing. But being sick when you are out of sick leave puts you in danger of being fired.
So what do families do? They do what they have to. The problem is that that is how so many people end up getting sick. We should really have a system that promotes staying home when ill to protect those that are young, or older, or are immuno-compromised. We should stay home to reduce the spread of viruses, but we can't. Our work system here in America is not designed to care about the person, much less the family. We care about productivity and work hours and the presence of people in the office. Things are better with the advent of telecommuting, but many jobs still require your presence. And some jobs don't provide PTO or sick leave at all, leaving workers the impossible choice of sucking it up so they can pay their bills or staying home and resting in order to protect strangers and co-workers.
I feel a little bit like I am beating a dead horse. Some of my readers might remember that I discussed this same thing back in 2012, in my post The Trouble With Illness. In that article I argued that we need to add more sick leave. I stated that, "By providing more sick time, we would actually get sick less." Sadly, three years later we have made little to no progress in this arena. In fact, in many ways we have slid backward. Illnesses seem to last longer and sick leave seems to have gotten shorter. although this is a subjective observation no based in statistical information at all. I am merely basing it on the vocal frustrations of families around me. The longer the illness lasts, the more likely someone is to return to work/school/child care while still contagious.
The other problem is the concept of the Doctor's note. Workers abusing the sick leave system have encouraged companies to demand a "sick note." So now, even though a worker may be missing work unpaid, and knows that the illness isn't severe enough to visit a Doctor is going to clog up the Doctor's offices just to obtain this piece of paper that is the equivalent of Mommy calling you in sick to school. Companies are saying "your word isn't trustworthy enough, we need an authority figure to confirm your story." However, the cost of this visit might be pricey depending on whether the company provides a quality health care plan or not and many doctors feel pressured to fill out sick notes if someone is in their office, even if there is no obvious physical need.
Now for the biggest irony of all. You can be fired for being sick! Not kidding. It is legally true in the majority of American states, with a few exceptions. It doesn't matter if you have a doctor's note or not. Unless you qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and have the proper paper work filed in a timely manner, you can be fired. No wonder people go to work sick. No wonder they drop their kids off at school pumped full of fever reducers and hope for the best. A few sites provide legal breakdowns of this;
But perhaps the most informative and comprehensive analysis of this phenomenon comes from one of my favorite, and oft referenced authors, Joan C. Williams, Distinguished Professor of Law, UC Hastings Foundation Chair and Director of the Center for WorkLife Law. Her article, Once Sick Child Away From Being Fired, discusses the problems that illness creates for workers with younger children who can not be legally left at home by themselves.
Knowing you can be fired for missing ANY work, regardless of how sick you are is alarming. It then becomes unsurprising that people go to work contagious and send their kids to school contagious. Of course, this compounds the problem by exposing other kids to the illness, thus putting other parents in the same predicament. In many ways illness is very much at the heart of the work/family problem here in America.
We spend an awful lot of time talking about the health care system, the Affordable Care Act, and the cost of health care, but what we don't realize is the hidden cost of health care reflected in an economic system that focuses on the company line and not on the individual worker. Since so many are married to their jobs in America, maybe we should provide a system that supports families in sickness and in health.