Back to school means a lot of things. In some families, it means shopping for school supplies, helping kids become reacquainted with their alarm clocks, and learning new school bus schedules. But for the millions of employed parents in jobs that don't let them earn paid sick days, it means another set of worries: uncertainty about what to do if a child gets sick.
For those parents, a child with a sore throat or the flu can mean an impossible choice between sending a sick child to school, leaving a sick child home alone, or losing pay and risking a job by staying home to provide care. And with flu season looming, millions of families may soon struggle with these very choices.
More than 44 million private sector workers in the United States are in jobs that do not allow them to earn paid sick days. Millions more don't have paid sick days they can use to care for a sick child.
But there is a solution. The federal Healthy Families Act would allow workers to earn up to seven job-protected paid sick days each year to use to recover from illness, access preventive care, or care for a sick child or family member. It is common sense legislation that would improve outcomes for children and ease burdens on schools and parents.
Parents without paid sick days are more than twice as likely as parents with paid sick days to send a sick child to school or day care, resulting in sicker children and the spread of contagion to others. Parents with paid sick days can take their children for check-ups and immunizations, keeping health problems in check.
Some state and local lawmakers who recognize these benefits have already taken action for their communities. Paid sick days laws are in place and working well in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut. A paid sick days law is about to take effect in Seattle as well. And we could soon see progress in New York City and Orange County, Florida.
But at the federal level, legislation is stalled. Senator Tom Harkin (D - Iowa) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D - Conn.) have introduced the Healthy Families Act, yet Congress has failed to act. That needs to change.
That's why, this back-to-school season, the National Partnership has created a back-to-school toolkit to make it easier to talk about the need for paid sick days with parents, teachers, school nurses and elected officials. Now is the perfect time to have these important conversations and to build the support we need to make a national paid sick days standard a reality. You can find the toolkit here.
Working parents have a lot on their minds this time of year. Being able to take time off to care for sick children should not be one of their ongoing concerns. Let's all commit to speaking up on this important issue for the health of our children, schools and communities.
Debra L. Ness is the president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.