Thursday, May 07, 2009

Swine Flu and the Working Poor

Several times today, the issue came up regarding what a conundrum the working poor face when forced to keep a child with flu-like symptoms out of school for a week.

With the CDC recommending seven days of home isolation for any child exhibiting a flu-like illness, we discussed in staff meeting what a difficult scenario this must be for parents who work in low-wage occupations that offer no sick time or personal time to care for their sick children.

As Barbara Ehrenreich so deftly illustrated in her seminal book, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America", the working poor are employed in occupations where not being able to come to work is almost ubiquitously grounds for instant termination.

So, when a single mother of three who cleans offices for a non-unionized cleaning company, she lives in fear of a child falling ill and missing school. Since her other family members also work in jobs they must protect by never missing a day of work, this "nickeled and dimed" wage earner is between a rock and a hard place when the school sends her feverish child home and demands that he or she not return for seven calendar days.

I am in no way stating that the CDC is erroneous in its recommendations for protecting the public from sick individuals potentially infected with the H1N1 virus, but we must not overlook the plight of the poor and the working poor when mandating sick days for children whose parents are at such risk of losing the little employment they have.

Now, government cannot solve every problem for every citizen at all times, but when we are mandating such a strict policy of isolation from school during a time when every person with a job desperately needs to retain that job in order to survive, there is a missing piece to the economic puzzle that must be examined, if not addressed.

Many workers are woefully unprotected from being laid off or fired when they miss a day of work for reasons well beyond their control, and the H1N1 virus may very well prove to be a problem for many workers on the edge of the wayward economy.
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