This Missing Law Is Making Me Sick


I’m a teacher. Sniffling, coughing, sneezing teenagers are contaminating my classroom. Germs disseminate through the air, landing on desks, keyboards, supplies, and doorknobs, infecting other students, faculty, and my pregnant self.

When a student has his head down on his desk, breathing onto the surface where six other students will put their hands and possessions, I deliver my standard line, “If you’re too sick to pick your head up, you need to go home.” Since >>there’s not a school nurse at my school (and many others), the only options are my classroom or home. And I know I don’t want his germs in my classroom.

But both he and I know that going home isn’t always an option, because many parents don’t earn paid sick days. If their child is ill, >>they must either take unpaid leave or risk losing their job if they call out. So their child goes to school sick.

Even people without children need to make hard choices >>when they or a family member gets sick, injured, or needs time to recover from domestic abuse. No person exists in a vacuum, and our lives are, without exception, complex.

These choices are why President Obama called on Congress in >>mid-January to require companies to provide up to seven days of paid sick leave a year as part of his proposed Healthy Families Act. This was a great move! Unfortunately, many in the private sector fear not only the loss of a day’s pay for no productivity, but also the loss of revenue the employee would have earned for the business had she come to work ill.

I want the person serving my food, cleaning my house (if I had a house cleaner), or handing me jeans the next size up to keep his germs at home or to care for his infected loved ones. That’s clear to me, but those employees have to deal with their managers, who fear they are abusing sick leave policies.

I feel for managers, who have to juggle schedules when folks call out. And employee absences affect other employees who have to work twice as hard that day. But the truth is, people who abuse these policies make poor coworkers and employees because they don’t take the responsibilities seriously.

Having sick days doesn’t guarantee employees will feel free to take them. I earn one sick day a month, but I rarely avail myself of this benefit. I know it is a detriment to my students to have a substitute, that it strains my coworkers, and that it is more work for me to be out. But at least I know I can take a day, if I need it, without fear of retribution or loss of pay. I am treated like a professional, a human with her own life outside of her forty plus hour work-week, and I want that for others.

I’m of two minds on the need for a bill to provide sick leave. I believe the free market should dictate company policies instead of the government. But I know that hasn’t worked. When so many hard working people have to make tough choices, I’m in favor of a bill that might allow a few to cheat while many profit.

Today, a handful of cities and a few state have ordinances requiring paid sick leave and several states are proposing legislation. But in North Carolina, we’re not even close. >>Such legislation has been proposed since 2009, but hasn’t passed. NC Justice Center policy analyst Sabine Schoenbach has >>said, “In North Carolina, [paid sick leave] has always been difficult to push on the labor front. We’re going to keep raising this issue, and when the time is right on the legislative front, we’ll be ready.”

The time is right. The White House Summit on Working Families, the Healthy Families Act, and the focus on middle class families during the President’s State of the Union Address give me hope. It’s very clear what direction our country is moving — let’s get our state caught up.

>>Cropped Jennifer BrickJennifer Brick is a writer and teacher in Durham, North Carolina. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. Follow her on Twitter @jenbrickwrites.

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