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School flu closings put working moms in a bind

Obama urges that schools with confirmed or suspected cases suspend classes. Mexican schools have already taken that step.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 2009

In Queens, N.Y., at Public School 177, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that 82 of 380 students have called in sick. Two public schools in New York, both in Queens, have been closed due to the swine flu.Health officials are also considering closing a parochial school inManhattan.

Robert Mecea/AP

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New York and Mexico City

President Obama, at the behest of public-health officials, is recommending that schools with confirmed or suspected cases of swine flu "strongly consider temporarily closing so we can be as safe as possible."

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Mexican officials have already taken that step and closed all schools nationwide until at least May 6.

The goal is to keep the flu from spreading. But the request brings up a glaring disconnect between the needs of public health and the majority of workplace policies, at least in the United States.

Nearly half of the people who work for private employers in the US have no paid sick leave, according to an analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among low-income workers in private employment, almost 80 percent have no paid sick time.

Of those workers in private employment who have paid sick leave, only a third can take a paid sick day to care for an ill child.

So when a school closes, it can create chaos.

"School being shut is the worst thing that can happen for parents who work," said Tina Schiller, who on Tuesday was picking up her young daughter, as usual, from Public School 234 in lower Manhattan. "Remember that one snow day? That was enough to put people over the edge."

There are now hundreds of suspected cases of swine flu in 10 US states. Two public schools in New York, both in Queens, have been closed. Health officials are also considering closing a parochial school in Manhattan. Several schools in California, Illinois, and Texas have closed as well after students tested positive for swine flu. And more are expected to shut their doors in coming days if the flu spreads.

"It's a very serious thing to close down a school or a school system because parents need to work. It's almost easier to shut down a whole city rather than one part of it," says Nicholas Freudenberg, professor of urban public health at Hunter College in New York City. "If you shut down schools and you don't shut down workplaces, what are the parents with a 7-year-old going to do?"

The Family and Medical Leave Act, which was passed in 1993, does require large employers to give workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave in the case of serious illness or that of a child. But to become eligible, a person must work for a company that has more than 50 employees, and they must have worked there at least 12 months and for more than 1,250 hours (about 30 weeks of 40 hours each) in the preceding 12 months. As a result, many low-wage workers don't qualify for the unpaid leave.

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