One in every four working parents of school-age children lacks sick leave for themselves or their youngsters, and must decide whether to send ill children to school or risk getting fired, a study found.
And parents who need sick leave the most - the working poor and those who have children with chronic illnesses such as asthma - are least likely to be entitled to leave, according to one of the few nationwide studies to explore the issue.
“Nearly 60 percent of poor working parents had no sick leave the entire time between 1985 and 1990,” the researchers reported in the August issue of Pediatrics, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
About 40 percent of single mothers whose children had asthma had no sick leave between 1985 and 1990, the study found.
Out of all working single mothers, 28 percent lacked sick leave during that period, said the researchers led by Dr. S. Jody Heymann, director of health and social policy at the Harvard Center for Children’s Health.
Of course, parents can lie about who is ill - no one has studied what proportion of companies allow employees to openly use their own sick leave for sick-child care, but the total burden of family illness still far outweighs the total amount of leave available, Heymann said.
“It’s a solvable problem,” Heymann said. “If everybody in the country received the average number of days of sick leave for their firm size, and if they were allowed to use that to care for their children, then 80 percent of parents would be able to meet their sick-child-care needs.
We wouldn’t have solved the problem, but we would have made very significant headway,” she said.
In the 1985-90 period, 27 percent of poor families averaged three weeks or more of family illnesses, the number of days both children and parents were ill. For non-poor families the figure was 23 percent.
The study defined poor as a family with income of 125 percent of the federal poverty level. That works out to $16,700 annual income for a family of four.
The Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, is no help to most parents because it involves unpaid time off and covers only major illnesses that typically require a hospital stay, the researchers said.
In most cases, children don’t need hospitalization but instead have frequent routine illnesses, the researchers said.
Another problem is that the law covers only those workers who have completed a year of employment at companies with at least 50 people. Workers who meet the requirements can take up to 12 weeks of leave for family medical emergencies or for a new baby.
The researchers culled their conclusions from existing data. Some of the data involved fathers, but most involved only mothers, Heymann said. She said she has no reason to believe fathers have more sick leave than mothers.
Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Insititute, a non-profit research group in New York, praised the study’s findings.
“I think that they are important because we’ve paid attention to children’s serious illnesses, but we’ve paid much less attention to kids’ everyday illnesses,” said Galinsky, who was not involved in the study.