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When Kid Sick Days Attack: Every Working Parent’s Headache

Categories: Parenting Issues


A while ago I was dropping off my son at preschool and I noticed one of his classmates had a rattling cough — delivered, loudly and juicily, in the saliva-spraying method of a child who hasn’t yet learned to cover his germ-hole. Ugh, I thought. What kind of parent brings their OBVIOUSLY sick kid to school like that?

Judgmental karma payback is a bitch: a week later, I was the one trying to decide if I should send my coughing kid to class. And here it is nearly a month after I eye-rolled that hacking preschooler, and both my kids are STILL coughing.

We’d been on a great run healthwise, and I suppose it was only a matter of time until a virus descended and wiped out the household. My seven-year-old got it first, and he stayed home from school for three days while he holed up on the couch watching a near-constant stream of Ninjago episodes. The five-year-old got it next, and managed to parlay the original gunk into an ear infection and surprise pneumonia diagnosis.

Everyone seems to be on the mend now, thank god, but this is the third straight week someone’s been home from school. I’m royally tired of it — for one thing, every surface of the house is currently littered in crumpled tissues and coated in a sticky patina of amoxicillin and children’s ibuprofen — but I’m also insanely grateful for the flexibility of freelancing. Without my work-from-home job, we’d have been up shit creek by now … sans paddle.

A recent poll from the University of Michigan confirmed what most of us already know: One-third of parents of young children are concerned about losing jobs or losing pay when taking off work to care for sick kids. Another report found that over half of parents don’t get five paid days off per year to take care of a sick child.

My husband has a friend whose workplace assigns “points” for every sick day he takes, regardless of reason. Rack up too many points, and there’s no further discussion, you’re fired. As he told my husband, he’s constantly near his points limit — not because he’s not a dedicated worker, but for the simple reason that he has three children. “I haven’t taken a sick day for myself in years,” he says.

When I was working outside the home and both our boys were in daycare, dealing with the inevitable sick days was enormously stressful. My husband and I would play that oh-so-fun game of “Whose Job is More Important?” in order to determine who would take the day off, and sometimes … well, sometimes we dosed a borderline kid with medicine, sent him in, and hoped for the best.

In other words, it was stupendously hypocritical of me to judge Preschool Cougher’s parents. Maybe he had long passed the point of contagion, maybe he had a condition like asthma. Maybe his parents were stuck between a rock and a hard place that morning, and they were just doing the best they could.

The always-moving target of balancing family and work takes a major hit when someone gets sick, and there are no easy solutions — especially for single parents or those with rigid workplace policies. Ideally, we’d all have the time we needed to be with our kids when they aren’t feeling well, but speaking as someone who’s on week THREE of caregiving, I can’t quite imagine an employer who wouldn’t have questioned my time off by now.

How do you handle sick days in your household? Has taking time off for your kids affected your job in any way?

Image via anjanettew/Flickr

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8 comments so far...

  • My daughter was just sick last week and I sent her to school anyway. I felt terrible when they called saying she needed to come home. One epic battle with her father later and we ended up splitting the sick days. But it’s rough. All of my sick days are used for her sick days.
    My boss has kids, but she also has a husband and a nanny, so I don’t think she really understands that a sick kid can’t go to daycare and I’m usually the one who has to take the day off work.
    It’s tough and every cold/flu season, I’m worried about my job.

    Kristen  |  February 12th, 2013 at 12:42 pm

  • My husband and I always play a rousing round of whose job is more important/more busy. Realistically though I take more sick days than my husband because my employer has leave accrual and I’ve worked here for 16 years so I have more leave than my husband. Still, there are times I just cannot be away from work and then we sometimes end up splitting a sick day - so we can each at least work half a day. Part of the reason I stay in my job, which is fine, but not my life’s passion, is because of the generous sick leave. It’s unacceptable that so many people do not have reasonable sick time.

    Maggie  |  February 12th, 2013 at 2:12 pm

  • This issue sends me screaming for the hills. When I was working, my husband and I would always play the Job-Topping Game. 95% of the time, I lost. I worked in a Union environment and sick children time off was interpreted by different bosses in different ways. I had a Literal boss–and literally, there is NO sick time allowed for children in the union contract–I could NOT use my own sick time to tend to a sick child. I was always forced to use vacation time or unpaid time–or LIE. I do not like to lie and basically refused to–except for the few times that I did do the “it’s less than 24-hours, but I can’t take time off, or we can’t buy groceries!” dance with the day care.

    I had several problems with my boss over this. It led to a not-as-high-as-normal job rating. It led to my not trusting my boss as much I did once upon a time. It led to anger at her seemingly stretching the rules for OTHERS in the department. It led, eventually, to my thinking that the buy-out option the company offered was actually, a pretty good thing. (And let’s be clear, my kids are rather healthy, and I took time off very infrequently compared to others. I wonder, now that I am out of there and can think with more of a clear head, what all those OTHER folks were going through if I had issues with MY infrequent absences!)

    Now when someone is sick there is no argument with DH. There is no 7am argument with my boss. And even though we honestly cannot afford for me to stay home any longer, when a kid gets sick, I REMEMBER, and I think, “Ah yes, not being able to buy groceries? Totally overrated!”

    Carrie  |  February 12th, 2013 at 2:21 pm

  • We were just there, with a sudden case of pinkeye on a Monday morning. I have an understanding employer, but I don’t get paid for days I don’t work. My husband gets PTO, but has a similar “points” system as JB’s friend. In the end, hubby took the time off to stay home and we just hope and pray it doesn’t happen too often.

    Mandy  |  February 12th, 2013 at 2:22 pm

  • I’ve had the good fortune to work with understanding supervisors for almost my entire parenting career. My husband and I still play the game of “Whose Job Is More Important” but we’re very lucky in that we both have family-friendly workplaces and plenty of paid time off. It makes me sad that isn’t the case for everyone.

    nonsoccermom  |  February 12th, 2013 at 2:59 pm

  • I work from home, but 8-5 as if I went to an office. It’s very flexible of course, and I also have sick days (6 per year) that I use as necessary (as well as 3 weeks vacation and 1 personal day). My husband on the other hand gets 3 weeks of paid time of per year and that includes any sick time he needs. I think what that does is encourage sick people to come to work - if they have to use vacation..they’d rather just suffer through work, infecting everyone and lowering productivity for everyone. I wish his office would change that and give at least 2 sick days separately from vacation. It’s always me that takes the day off with a sick kid though, I have the time, and the flexibility.

    Melissa  |  February 12th, 2013 at 3:02 pm

  • I’m up in Canada where the rules are different so my reply might not be so useful. I have a ton of sick time to use separate from holiday time, and I also get three days of sick kid leave (or you can use for spouse / parent / other family if you don’t have kids). I’m confused why employers don’t offer sick leave — as someone else said above, it just makes people come to work sick and spread it around. And then everyone is miserable! Not to mention unproductive!

    And despite there being lots of sick time no one abuses it — if you stay away more than three days you need a doctor’s note, so it’s not as though people just stay home!

    Jeannie  |  February 12th, 2013 at 10:26 pm

  • Why don’t employers get it Jeannie? For the same reasons the US doesn’t have universal health, paid maternity and a host of other things - they simply don’t want to have to pay for any time the employee isn’t there. Period.
    Kristen - I had a boss like yours and then one day, the nanny went on vacation. At the same time, her hubby (who freelanced) was called to a job out of town for 2 weeks. Great job for him, but…we were extra lucky in that (sadly former) job offered a back up daycare. So she placed her kids, but after 2 days, she actually came to me and said, “I get it now” about everything not just sick but no-notice overtime too.
    To those who have points systems sick days - omg that is cruel & insane! I’ve never encountered it before but now I’m going to be looking at that for every job notice ever after.

    Mich  |  February 13th, 2013 at 1:48 pm