October 28, 2014 Liz Borkowski, MPH 2Comment

A new Data Note about Kaiser Family Foundation survey findings highlights how this country’s lack of nationwide paid sick leave places a disproportionate burden on women with children – and is particularly hard on low-income mothers. In Balancing on Shaky Ground: Women, Work and Family Health, Usha Ranji and Alina Salganicoff begin by noting that 70% of mothers with children under 18 are in the labor force. Then they report the results of survey questions on who takes charge of children’s healthcare and whether they have paid leave time to fulfill these responsibilities.

The 2013 Kaiser Women’s Health Survey (I wrote about some of its other findings here) and the 2013 Kaiser Men’s Health Survey asked respondents with children under 18 questions about who usually takes children for doctors’ appointments and cares for sick children. Eight-one percent of mothers reported that they’re usually the ones taking children for doctor’s appointments, and 39% said they’re usually the ones to take care of sick children (another 33% said it’s a joint responsibility). Among fathers, 16% responded that they usually take children for doctor’s appointments. And just three percent of fathers reported that they are usually the ones to take care of a sick child. Another 42% said it’s a joint responsibility.

“Caring for children’s health has tangible economic consequences, especially for women,” Ranji and Salganicoff write. Of the 39% of working mothers who must miss work to care for sick children, 60% of them report that they don’t get paid for the time they have to take off. And this percentage is significantly higher than the 45% of respondents who reported in the 2004 survey that caring for a sick child means missing out on pay.

The Data Note doesn’t speculate on why we’re seeing this increase in the percentage of working mothers who don’t get paid for the time they spend out of work caring for sick children. My guess is that the recent economic downturn and uneven recovery have left more women working in jobs that don’t offer paid sick leave. There’s a clear pattern to what kinds of jobs those are.

The third set of statistics in the Data Note adds to existing evidence that women who have lower incomes and work part-time are less likely to get paid sick leave from their employers. Seventy-one percent of working mothers with incomes at or above 200% of the federal poverty level report that their employers offer them paid sick leave, compared to just 36% of working mothers with incomes below 200% FPL. Seventy percent of full-time workers, compared to 25% of part-time workers, report having this benefit.

A recent analysis of the 2013 National Health Interview Survey by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that only 21% of workers in Food Preparation and Serving Related occupations and 28% of workers in Personal Care and Service reported having paid sick leave. To limit the spread of disease, it’s important for food workers and childcare providers to be able to stay home when they have the flu or another transmissible illness. When missing work means losing pay, however, many workers can’t afford to stay home and recover from their own illness, or care for a child who’s home sick from school. This is one of the reasons the American Public Health Association has adopted a policy statement calling for the US to improve access to paid sick and family leave.

The good news is that voters and legislatures across the US are acknowledging that if we want to encourage both work and good parenting, we need to make it possible for workers to stay home to recover from an illness or care for a sick child. Several cities have passed laws requiring employers to let workers earn paid sick time, and last month California became the second state to mandate paid sick days. (Connecticut was the first, although its law only applies to businesses with 50 or more employees.) Next week, Massachusetts voters will determine the fate of a ballot measure requiring paid sick days statewide.

I’m hopeful that in future Kaiser Family Foundation surveys we’ll see fewer working mothers reporting that they don’t get paid for time spent caring for sick children, and a disappearing gap in paid-sick-leave access between lower- and higher-income women. That would be good news for working women, and for public health.

2 thoughts on “Paid sick days and working women: new (and disturbing) results from a Kaiser survey

  1. I’m 1) Canadian and 2) a union worker so I should be laughing all the way to the bank here, but… There’s no mechanism in our contract for “take a day off for a sick kid”. There’s “family responsibility time” but that’s borrowed, ie. you have to make up the time within the same pay period. Like many parents I have little ability to come in early or stay late, especially making up an entire workday over two weeks or less. So for this purpose, we use… vacation days. One bad flu in the family can gobble up a lot of those

    I’m not griping much here, because I’m a lot better off than some single mom from Watts who works at Taco Bell and has to work whenever her supervisor feel like scheduling her, come hell or high fever. And nobody forced me to have kids. But nobody should have to neglect their children to keep their job, and when flexibility is offered it often needs to be better structured.

    1. “Nobody should have to neglect their children to keep their job” — exactly!

      When we examined all of the US city laws on paid sick leave in 2013, all of them specifically state that the paid sick time can be used to care for a sick family member. The Portland, Seattle, and New York City laws even state that workers can use the time to care for a child whose school or place of care is closed due to a public health emergency. Of course, if workers get sick themselves in addition to caring for sick children, they could easily need more than the annual required amount of sick time. But it’s better than having no paid sick leave at all.

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