Joe Amon / CT Public

Lately, children in the emergency department often wait hours before seeing a doctor. Those ill enough to be admitted might wait days for an available bed. Why? Pediatric emergency rooms and doctor’s offices across Connecticut are seeing a significant increase in sick patients due to a surge in a virus called RSV (respiratory syncytial virus).

Alongside climbing influenza cases, and the continued spread of COVID-19, hospitals are stretched thin.

This means children seeking help for any medical condition, including seizures, broken bones, or allergic reactions, must also wait longer to receive medical care. For sick children today, having an available caregiver nearby is especially invaluable.

This past week in clinic, I saw a 4-year-old boy who could not stop coughing. He wiped his runny nose on his sleeve. “He’s sleeping all day,” his mother shared. “He is up all night coughing. He won’t eat. He only drinks water or juice if I make him. I know he needs to stay home from school and rest, but… I really can’t afford to miss work.”

When the most important person in your life is sick, your whole world stops. But that shouldn’t mean your paycheck stops as well. When a child is sick, too many Connecticut parents face an impossible choice: stay home to care for their child or go to work to cover their cost of living.

Alexandra Ashinoff

Historically, Connecticut has prided itself on family-friendly policies. In 2011, we were the first in the nation to enact a statewide paid sick days policy. While groundbreaking at the time, today most of our workers are excluded from the program

Recent data shows that just 11% of our workforce is guaranteed the right to paid sick time under current law. How is that possible?

Today’s policy guarantees 40 hours, or five days, of paid sick time to workers if they (1) work for an employer of 50 or more employees, and (2) work for a job that falls under a lengthy definition of “service worker.” The law further requires workers to clock 680 hours at their job before using the time they’ve accrued.

These conditions exclude workers who are new, part-time, balancing multiple jobs, working for smaller employers, or whose jobs don’t fall under specific categories of “service worker.” These limitations especially disadvantage women and workers of color, who are overrepresented in low-wage jobs least likely to provide paid sick days.

For the 89% of workers excluded from this law, the decision to stay home to care for a child, take care of themself, or protect their community, quite literally costs them.

Connecticut’s children’s hospitals and clinics are overwhelmed by a surge in RSV cases while the number of people being hospitalized with influenza virus has more than tripled over the past month. Yet, despite the desperate need for a stronger policy, and proof of its efficacy in supporting both our economy and healthcare system, our current paid sick day law pushes 89% of our neighbors to go to work rather than provide care.

In short, the status quo only exacerbates our healthcare crisis.

“I make $350 a week,” my patient’s mother continued, “I can’t risk losing my paycheck.” I felt the weight of my words as I shared with my her that I’d recommend he stay home from school to heal. How can I continue asking the many families in this position to keep their children home, when it means giving up money needed to pay for basic necessities?

We cannot continue asking families to make this impossible choice. A child shouldn’t have to go to school sick because a parent can’t afford to stay home with them. And whether it’s your child who is sick or your child’s contagious classmate, everyone is impacted. Paid sick days are an essential investment to support Connecticut families.

Let’s continue to lead the country in prioritizing families. When the 2023 legislative session begins on January 4, lawmakers will have the opportunity to strengthen our current law and ensure that all workers in our state, regardless of their job title, the size of their employer, or how many hours they’ve worked, have access to paid sick days. We must ask that our elected officials prioritize this change as if our families are depending on it — because they are.

Dr. Alexandra Ashinoff is a resident in pediatrics at Yale New Haven Hospital.