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The long, lazy days of summer are slowly winding to a close and school supply lists are starting to pop up in mailboxes across NC. In amongst the crayons, glue, and binders our kids will need this fall, there’s the ever present request for Kleenex. If you’re like me, you groan a little every time you see this silent reminder of what else will be coming home from school with your kids this fall. In addition to learning to share on the playground, they’ll be sharing germs with each other and eventually with the rest of the family!

Most children average between six and ten colds a year, which can go up to 12 colds a year for kids in school or day care. With those kind of odds, it’s no wonder that workers occasionally need time off to care for themselves or a sick family member.

Unfortunately, in North Carolina the common colds that every family with school-age children will certainly face can place working families in real financial jeopardy. Nearly half of North Carolina’s workers, 1.6 million people, lack a single paid sick day that they could use to take care of themselves, their sick child, or go to a doctor.

The routine back-to-school physicals and immunizations can be anything but routine for parents forced to choose between the preventative care required to keep their child healthy and the pay check they need to bring home to keep food on the table.

MomsRising members have been proud to be part of the coalition working to change this situation in NC. Since 2007, a diverse coalition has been working to pass paid sick days legislation through the North Carolina legislature that would guarantee all NC workers a modest number of paid sick days.

As moms, we know first-hand how the lack of family-friendly workplace policies impacts our lives in very personal ways. And our stories don’t exist in a vacuum. They point to a systemic problem demanding legislative action.

This spring we asked MomsRising’s more than 21,000 NC members to share their stories on how these policies have impacted their lives. The stories poured in from every corner of the state, a vivid reminder of why this struggle is so important. I was honored to present these families’ stories to our state legislators as I testified on behalf of our members before the Joint Select Committee on Work and Family Balance that’s been meeting to study family-friendly workplace policies.

A member from Sophia, NC shared that on February 15, 2010, she was fired from her job for staying home with her son who had the flu and could not be left alone. Another mom reminded legislators that there is often no daycare available for sick children. Most daycare is very strict that children must be fever free for 24 hours before they return. It really puts parents in a bind.

Other members spoke of going to work sick so they could use their limited earned sick days for their children or bringing their sick child to work with them to sleep on a blanket under their desk. Not only do practices such as these pose health risks for the parents and kids involved, but they pose real public health risks for other North Carolinians.

When my premature son finally came home from the hospital back in 2005, I was terrified to take him out in public for fear of what he might catch. But I don’t blame other mothers and fathers for doing what they have to do to keep their families going financially. When businesses aren’t required to provide a minimum number of paid sick days, we all pay the price.

Because they lack paid sick days to care for themselves or their families, parents are far too often forced to choose between a day's pay and caring for sick kids. This has negative impacts on the children’s health, as well as negative public health impacts as sick children are sent to school or day care. Paid sick days would make a major difference. We all know that kids need to stay home when they're sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends keeping children home from school for 24 hours after their fevers have subsided to prevent the spread of illnesses like the flu. Without paid sick days, 1.6 millions North Carolinians do not have the luxury of following this recommendation without real financial costs to their families. Paid sick days have benefits beyond the individual worker including improved child health, reduced health care costs, and public health benefits.

In seeking more family-friendly policies, NC parents aren’t asking for a handout. We are asking for the tools we need to be both productive employees and parents. It shouldn’t have to be an either/ or. What’s good for families can also be good for business. For example, SAS, a NC-based firm, has continued to be quite profitable while also becoming the No. 1 ranked company on FORTUNE magazine’s "100 Best Companies to Work For" list in the US.

There are solutions to these shared problems. MomsRising members in NC are thrilled to see our state legislators seriously studying paid sick days and other critical work family-balance issues. We are hopeful that when the study committee makes its final recommendations in early 2011 paid sick days legislation will be among them.

North Carolina is a state that prides itself on family values. This starts with valuing our families and supporting the kind of policies parents deserve to reach their full potential as parents and as employees. We’re counting on our legislators to provide the leadership necessary to make workplace policies meet the needs of today’s families.

Beth Messersmith is a mother of two in Durham, NC and a member of MomsRising.

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