This essay was first published in Newsday. Places around the country with any labor union strength at all - New York City among them - are passing paid sick day laws. By October 2015, nearly a million additional New Yorkers in the city will be guaranteed paid sick leave, and it will be against the law to fire a worker for calling in sick.
Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; Seattle and Connecticut have recently enacted similar measures, and Democrats in the House of Representatives are talking about a national law.
The New York bill is a result of years of debate and expert testimony about workers' rights and employers' costs. Yet, in all, very little has been said about an underlying cause of sick days - that is, sick children. The rise in the number of working parents and single-parent homes has meant that the common childhood cold, flu, earache or strep throat has inserted itself into the workplace. For this reason, sick-day protection is an idea whose time has come.
"Workers will no longer have to choose between their jobs and their health or their children's health," one labor leader, Stuart Appelbaum, told the media after the New York City Council reached an agreement.
So often, our public discourse about work and family concerns the upper echelon: Can new mom Marissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo, really "have it all"? Stay tuned! This shift in focus to a benefit that potentially affects a broader swath of parents in retail, restaurant, hotel and other service jobs is welcome.
People who work with children know how often parents must choose between work and staying home with a sick kid. Recent advice to day care centers warns about the "drop and go" syndrome. Some parents leave a child with a caregiver and run out the door before it's noticed that the child is ill. Some parents give their child a dose of medicine to ease symptoms just long enough to sneak him or her into school or day care.
This can't be good for public health. Kids in groups spread illness among themselves, then return home and infect their parents - who in turn go to work and expose their co-workers and customers. What kind of sick way is that to run a healthy planet?
A friend of mine works from home when her infant son is sick. But she's well aware that not everyone can do that. And so, she worries about bringing him to the day care center even when he is well. He might catch something.
A better option would be child care for kids who are too sick to be in regular day care. But it's very hard to make these work financially. Most day care in the United States is supplied by people who take children into their homes, according to the Census Bureau. Were an operator to convert to sick care, the caregiver could charge higher rates. But he or she could go weeks without a client dropping off a sick child. There's also the liability of dispensing medications, and dehydration and other medical problems.
A physician in Arizona last year announced the opening of two "get well child care" centers. They are run in conjunction with a preschool, so the income is steadier. Still, they won't take children with measles, mumps, hepatitis, chickenpox or flu in its early, most infectious stage.
The new sick day laws are a sign of the times. Industrial production and factory jobs at one point in our history led to laws limiting the workday to eight hours and banning child labor. Sick day standards are simply one more way to shelter the nation's families.