We can help battle the ‘tripledemic’ with this commonsense solution

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America’s children are facing an unprecedented “tripledemic” of RSV, the flu and still-prevalent Covid-19, while new threats like Strep A loom. Years of necessary Covid precautions have reduced exposure to illness in early life and in utero, leaving young children at risk of more frequent and more serious illnesses due to their unprepared immune systems. Pediatric health leaders are calling for a national emergency response as children’s hospitals across the country run out of beds. 

Yet instead of summoning every tool at our disposal to keep kids safe, we are fighting infection with our hands tied behind our backs because far too many in this country do not have paid sick time. Parents without paid sick days are nearly twice as likely to send a sick child to school or child care — the inevitable result of the impossible choice between caring for their children and providing for them.

Sending sick children to school or child care means depriving them of the rest and care they need to recover, risking their health in the face of overwhelmed hospitals and medication shortages.

Sending sick children to school or child care means depriving them of the rest and care they need to recover, risking their health in the face of overwhelmed hospitals and medication shortages. Forcing parents to send sick kids to school or child care also spreads disease to other children as well as to teachers and child care providers, who then bring illness home to their loved ones and out into their communities. 

Many states and cities have taken the lead and guaranteed their workers paid sick time, with demonstrated, powerful benefits from reducing disease transmission to lowering emergency room visits to higher rates of flu shots. Others should join them as the fight for federal paid sick time rights continues. 

Three years into a pandemic, nearly 1 in 4 private sector workers in the U.S. still don’t have a single paid sick day. Among the lowest earners, more than 60% have no paid sick time. Millions more do not have paid sick time to care for sick children. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey published in November found that half of all working parents were not being paid when they took time off to care for a sick child who could not go to school. And among those who need it most, paid time to care for a sick child is even harder to come by: More than 3 in 4 low-income working mothers report forgoing pay when they care for sick kids, and Black mothers, single mothers and mothers working part-time are especially likely to report losing pay.  

Paid sick time is also an investment in one of our most powerful tools to build up children’s fragile immune systems: vaccination. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics summary of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, more than 15 million children in the U.S. under the age of 5 — nearly 90% of those in the youngest vaccine-eligible age group — have yet to receive even one dose of a Covid vaccine. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in July found that more than 1 in 4 parents of unvaccinated young children report concern about missing work to take their child to get vaccinated or to care for their child if they experience vaccine side effects. Among Black parents, more than 4 in 10 report this same fear. 

Just as research has shown that paid sick time laws increase vaccination rates while reducing coverage disparities, universal paid sick time would enable all parents, not just a fortunate few, to vaccinate and protect their children. 

Our lack of paid sick time is not only a public health catastrophe: It is an economic disaster. Without paid sick time, missed work translates into dollars lost from paychecks already stretched thin — the difference between making rent and missing it, between a full refrigerator and an empty one.  

Moreover, without the right to paid sick time, staying home to care for a sick child can mean risking your job, giving a short-term absence long-term consequences. This burden is falling especially hard on women: Moms are nearly three times as likely to stay home to care for a sick child than dads.  

Despite opponents’ fears, research shows that paid sick time laws do not harm businesses and that costs of compliance are low, especially when compared to the benefits to businesses. To the contrary, depriving workers of this essential right drags down our economy by billions of dollars each year, as businesses bear the costs of higher turnover, increased health care costs and decreased productivity, all compounded by the costly spread of disease through the workplace.  

Now is the time for policymakers to step up and protect our kids. We must act now to ensure that everyone has the paid sick time they need for themselves and their families. The health of our children depends on it.  

Molly Weston Williamson

Molly Weston Williamson is a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress and a nationally recognized expert on paid leave policy.

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