Rhonda Harshaw’s 8-year-old son woke up with a terrible toothache.
The right side of his jaw was swollen, and he was crying that his face and mouth hurt.
Harshaw, who lives in St. Louis, could tell he needed to see a dentist right away. She called the restaurant where she works as a server and asked if she could start her 12-hour shift after taking her son to the dentist.
“I would be put on an unpaid suspension,” she says she was told. “I was worried I might lose my job, so yes, I did go into work.”
Harshaw’s mother eventually took the boy to the dentist, who discovered the child needed surgery to remove a baby tooth. Harshaw is scheduled to work the day of her son’s next appointment, as well, and her mother has two other children to take care of that day.
She says this was her first time ever asking for time off to deal with a child’s illness.
“I’m not a person who calls in,” she said. Even though she offered to come in later, she was told it was not allowed.
“It hurt,” she said.
It hurts to see your child in pain. It hurts when you have to choose between taking care of a sick child and being able to feed your family. And it hurts to work for people who value you so little.
Harshaw’s dilemma is faced by millions of working Americans regularly.
More than 40 percent of American workers do not have paid sick days. That’s about 44 million workers. This makes our country an anomaly among the industrialized world. Among the 20 most economically productive countries, 19 have paid sick leave protection for workers. In 18 of those countries, workers are guaranteed 30 days or more, according to Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work Consortium, an advocacy group working for paid sick days and family leave protection.
“The things we are fighting for are not only modest, but meager, compared to the rest of the world,” she said. More than half a dozen places around the country are taking on the issue of paid sick days.
But what is it about the nature of our country’s economic system that forces so many of its workers to make such a lose-lose choice? What is the rationale that allows employers and managers to look at a suffering worker and say: If you don’t come in to work, you’re fired.
The most common reason offered by lobbyists and business interests opposed to offering paid sick leave is that it is simply too costly.
But experts agree that turnover costs, the expense related to replacing a lost employee, are far greater than being without a worker in the short-term. Employees are more productive when they are well. Taking time off means quicker recovery for a sick employee, plus less chance of spreading illnesses to other employees and customers. Overall health care costs are lowered when people recuperate faster and fewer get sick. And, the nation’s workers are also its consumers. People need to earn money to be able to spend it.
“When people lose pay or a job, it hurts them, their families — and the economy,” Bravo said.
Millions have been sick recently during this brutal flu and virus season. The public campaigns about the flu epidemic advised people with symptoms to stay home.
But what’s the right message for people who see that and wonder: Will we have groceries if I miss work because I’m sick? Will I lose my job because my child is sick? What do we say to a mother who has to make that choice?
As a nation, we have a stake in whether an 8-year-old with a throbbing toothache has someone to take him to get the surgery he needs.
It’s not just Harshaw’s dignity at stake when she scrambles to find him a ride, so she can serve diners their meals.
It’s our own.