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A third of working parents risk pay or job loss when child gets sick, survey finds

Arranging alternative day care for a sick child is difficult, if not impossible, for many working parents, the survey also found.

Parents of sick children often have no choice but to forgo pay or incur the wrath of their bosses.
CC/Flickr/Alex E. Proimos

When a young child comes down with a cold, pinkeye, diarrhea or other common and potentially contagious childhood illness, many parents have much more to be anxious about than just getting their child well again.

They also worry about losing pay or even their jobs as a result of having to stay home to care for their child, according to a new survey conducted by the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

Yet parents often have no choice but to forgo pay or incur the wrath of their bosses. That’s because arranging alternative day care for their sick child is difficult, if not impossible, for many working parents, the survey also found.

Most child-care facilities have strict policies that exclude sick children until their illness has resolved or until the parents can produce a note from a doctor stating that their child’s illness is no longer contagious.

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“Based on these findings, we can see that childcare-related illness is a substantial problem for most working families. We find that this may be especially difficult for families who don’t have adequate paid sick leave,” said Dr. Andrew Hashikawa, an emergency medicine physician at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, in a video that accompanied the release of the survey’s findings.

Survey details

The survey, which was conducted in May 2012, involved 310 nationally representative and randomly selected working parents with children under the age of 6 in day care. The parents were asked various questions about the impact of their child’s illnesses on their families.

Here are the survey’s key findings:

  • 62 percent reported that their child was unable to attend child care at least once during the past year because of illness, and 38 percent said their child had been unable to attend due to illness three or more times during the year.
  • 42 percent of the parents said they missed work to care for their sick child during the past year, and 26 percent said they missed work three or more times during that period.
  • 50 percent of the parents said that making other child-care arrangements was difficult.
  • 33 percent said that taking time off from work to care for their sick child was difficult because doing so meant they lost pay or put their job at risk.
  • 31 percent said that they didn’t receive enough paid time off from work to care for their sick child.

Reliance on emergency rooms

The survey also found that a small but significant number of parents (8 percent) said it was more convenient to take their sick child to a hospital emergency room for treatment than to a primary-care physician.

“Parents may also feel that they don’t have any other option but the emergency department if they want to have their children checked out after standard office hours and get them back to childcare the next day,” said Hashikawa in a prepared statement.

Using the emergency room is certainly an option for many Twin Cities parents.

I contacted Christine Hill, a spokesperson for the Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) in downtown Minneapolis, for some statistics on the number of parents who bring their sick children to her hospital’s emergency room for care. She, in turn, contacted Raegan Sipe, an HCMC nurse supervisor who’s been working in the hospital’s emergency room for 17 years. Sipe confirmed that most of the 12,000 or so children seen each year at HCMC’s emergency room arrive in the evening, night or early-morning hours.

“Typically the parents discover that the child has been ill during school or daycare, or the child doesn’t say anything about feeling ill until they get home, or the child won’t go to sleep because they have pain or are vomiting, and so the parents then bring them in to the ED because clinics are closed,” wrote Sipe in an e-mail exchange.

Millions without sick leave

The Michigan survey comes with several caveats. Most notably, it was small and had a significant margin of error of plus or minus 5 to 8 percentage points.

Still, national sick-leave statistics also suggest that many working parents are repeatedly put in the position of having to choose between their child’s health and their jobs — or at least their paychecks. As the report of the findings of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital survey point out, some 40 million workers in the United States (40 percent of private-sector workers and 80 percent of low-wage workers) have no sick-leave benefits.

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“Improving employee benefits related to paid sick leave appears to be important for many parents, because it would allow parents to care for their sick child at home or give parents the opportunity to go to their child’s usual health care provider instead of the emergency room,” the report concludes.

You can read the report of the survey’s findings on the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital’s website.