Objective. Parents have always played a critical role in the care of sick children. Although parents' roles remain crucial to children's health, parental availability has declined during the past half century. The percentage of women with preschool children who work has risen almost fivefold in 45 years from 12% in 1947 to 58% in 1992. The percentage of women in the paid work force with school-aged children has almost tripled in the same period, from 27.3% to 75.9%. Research has examined the effects of a variety of parental work conditions on children. However, past research has not examined how working conditions affect the ability of parents to care for their sick children. In this article, we examine how often the children of working parents get sick and whether parents receive enough paid leave to care for their sick children.

Methodology. This analysis makes use of two national surveys, which provide complementary information regarding the care of sick children. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth is a longitudinal survey of a nationally representative probability sample of 12 686 men and women; the National Medical Expenditure Survey is a panel survey of 34 459 people. First, we estimated the family illness burden. Second, we looked in detail at the number of days of sick leave mothers had. Third, we examined whether mothers who had sick leave had it consistently during a 5-year period. Finally, we conducted a logistic regression to determine what factors were significant predictors of both lacking sick leave.

Results. More than one in three families faced a family illness burden of 2 weeks or more each year. Yet, 28% of mothers had sick leave none of the time they were employed between 1985 and 1990. Employed mothers of children with chronic conditions had less sick leave than other employed mothers. Thirty-six percent of mothers whose children had chronic conditions had sick leave none of the time they were employed. Although 20% of working parents who did not live in poverty lacked sick leave, 38% of parents who did live in poverty lacked sick leave. The problem is also more marked for nonwhite parents. Although 23% of working white parents lacked paid sick leave, 31% of nonwhite parents lacked sick leave. One in six families that lacked sick leave had to cover for more than 4 weeks of family illness during the year.

Conclusion. In 1993, the US Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). However, by limiting the medical leave to the care of major illnesses, primarily those requiring hospitalization, the FMLA does not address the majority of children's sick care needs. For the common childhood illnesses that are not covered by the FMLA, employed parents often must rely on their sick leave if they are to care for their sick children themselves. Yet, we found that many employed parents lack sick leave. This is particularly true of parents of children with chronic conditions and poor and minority families.

This content is only available via PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.