Swine Flu Poses Work Dilemma for Working Moms

As schools shutter their doors, working moms have to negotiate sick leave when no one is actually sick.

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The swine flu outbreak has all of us in a near panic, stirred up by relentless media coverage of what could happen if things get worse. Fearing a spread of the contagious and potentially deadly illness, more than 100 school systems in 14 states have shut their doors, leaving 160,000 kids home and their parents trying to figure out how to adjust their work schedules. In many cases, women are the ones doing the juggling. Working moms in Fort Worth—where schools will be closed until at least May 11—may have to take a week or two of unpaid leave.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us we should "stay home from work" when we are sick—in this case a mild cough could qualify—but that's easier said than done. Employers aren't required to provide paid sick leave, and many folks can't afford to forgo pay. "The CDC is making good suggestions, but they don't give any thought to the half of workers who don't have paid sick days," says Karen Minatelli, director of the work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families. "With the economy the way it is, many are afraid they'll lose their jobs if they take time off. We'd like to hear the CDC or President Obama call on employers to be a partner in this effort," perhaps by providing paid sick leave or guaranteed job security when leave is taken.

Even companies that do provide paid sick leave may not be legally required to provide it in the instance of school closure. "Paid sick days can be used if you or your child is sick, but I don't know whether these days can be taken if everyone is healthy but schools are closed," says Fatima Goss Graves, senior counsel at National Women's Law Center.

The bigger issue, she says, is that many parents don't have any guaranteed sick leave, paid or unpaid, and they could be in danger of losing their jobs if they take off a week or two while their kids are off from school. The Family Medical Leave Act requires only companies with 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave per year. And while it applies in many situations—including a serious health condition, the birth or adoption of a child, or caring for a sick family member—nowhere does the law address leave in the event of flu epidemics.

The proposed Families Act, which will probably be reintroduced in Congress sometime this year, would mandate a week of paid sick leave for those who work in companies with 15 or more employees. Some states and cities already have guaranteed paid sick leave: Washington, D.C.'s law, implemented last year, requires seven paid sick days for workers in firms with 100 employees or more, five days for firms with 25 to 99 employees, and three days for firms with 24 employees or fewer.

Regardless of the sick leave policies, the onus is on parents to work things out with their employers in the event of school closures. Many bosses will probably let employees work from home or use accrued sick or vacation leave. But some folks, especially single moms, may be left with just two unacceptable options: leave kids home alone or risk losing their jobs. Says Graves, "I haven't heard any real solutions as to how parents should cope with all of this."

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