Ellen Bravo is former director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women and author of the recently released Taking on the Big Boys, or Why Feminism is Good for Families, Business and the Nation (Feminist Press at CUNY).
Teachers tell researchers they’ve never seen so many children coming to school sick. Guilt-ridden mothers share stories of sending ailing kids to day care or school out of fear that staying home with them would result in discipline on the job.
These stories don’t surprise me. But what was startling was hearing how many kids drag themselves to school sick to keep a parent from losing pay or getting fired.
I first became aware of this three years ago at a 9to5 leadership conference in Washington, D.C. Members were getting ready to tell their elected officials why they need paid sick days – something half the workforce, and three-quarters of low-wage women, do not have. For these workers, staying home to care for one’s own illness or a sick family member could mean not only loss of pay, but loss of a job.
First I stopped by the group from Wisconsin and heard Robbie Bickerstaff describe how her son Eric, then age 7, got hit by a car on the way home from school but chose not to tell her for fear she’d lose her second shift job if she didn’t go in to work. Later an older sibling called her to say that Eric was crying because his arm hurt from being hit by the car and she had to take him to the hospital. When Robbie informed her boss, he was adamant: “Leave and you’re fired.” Her pleas didn’t move him. She did leave; she was fired. Eric turned out to have a broken arm.
I moved on to the 9to5 members from Pennsylvania and shared Robbie’s story. Carissa Peppard, the 21-year-old daughter of activist Kiki Peppard, was sitting next to her mom. “I’ve never told my mother this before,” she said, “but when you’re a kid, you know everything. Whenever I was sick, I’d ask myself, ‘Should I tell Mom? Will we have groceries this week if she stays home with me?’ If I could, I just dragged myself to school.”
I related these stories recently at a briefing for Congressional staff organized by 9to5. On the panel with me was Jeannetta Allen, an energetic 18-year-old with a disability that affects her balance and her speech. She’d just testified how lack of paid sick days had cost her mother a job.
“I’m that kid,” Jeannetta said when I’d finished. “After my mother was fired, I always tried to go to school no matter how I felt. I didn’t want her to be fired again.”
A chain reaction started among 9to5 members in the audience. One after another, they told stories of discovering a child was walking around with bruised ribs or the flu or strep throat because staying home meant Mom could lose her job.
“My son had stopped eating,” Christina said. “He thought it would save on groceries.”
Nearly 20 years ago, a Wisconsin coalition brought a group of children to Madison, Wisconsin, to fight for a state family and medical leave bill. They represented the range of reasons children might need a loved one by their side – childhood cancer, being adopted, death of a grandparent, having a sibling with a developmental disability or asthma, being hit by a car. After listening to the kids’ stories, the Secretary of Employment Relations was visibly moved. “You know,” he told them, “we’re so used to dealing with lobbyists, we forget about those who are affected by our legislation.”
Too many elected officials are preaching family values but listening to lobbyists who want those values to end at the workplace door.
It’s time we listened to the children instead.