How to Survive your Kid's Sick Days as a Working Parent

by Emily Glover November 01, 2021

kid blowing her nose in bed

The past year and a half have changed what it means to be a working parent in dramatic ways. With more employees working from home, it could seem on the surface that it’s easier than ever to work around kids’ schedules. However, that isn’t always true—and that’s particularly apparent on days when you have to handle sick kids as a working parent.

For as long as there have been working parents, there has been the challenge of finding backup childcare for sick kids. That challenge has only intensified since March 2020 due to many childcare providers tightening guidelines about when kids can go to school: Whereas parents once sent their kids to school with stuffy noses, that’s now cause to stay home.

The upside to these policies is that kids are avoiding more common colds than in years past. The downside, however, is that it can put working parents in a bind when you have to keep kids home regardless of whether it’s seasonal allergies or a contagious illness.

With the matter of managing sick days with kids being more of a question of when rather than if, here is what you can do to help prepare:

Explore a Plan B

Although the pandemic has undeniably made it more complicated to line up back-up childcare, it is still worth exploring options. For example, if you have a young child in a daycare program that will not permit them to attend with a low-grade fever no matter its cause, you may be able to coordinate with a babysitter who will agree to cover sick days if the child has a negative Covid test.

The inherent trick with situations such as these is that sick days can be impossible to predict, which means the backup childcare provider may not always be available. The longer your list of potential contacts for sick days, the better prepared you’ll be.

Understand Your Workplace Policies

Many workers are allowed sick leave—and that can extend to when kids are sick, too. Unfortunately, understanding these protections can be confusing and complicated for American workers: The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) only covers 56% of workers. Although more coverage may be available depending on the state and the workplace, the burden is often put on parents to figure out their rights. Instead of doing that by reading back through a work agreement on the morning when your child wakes up sick, research your workplace policies and your rights in advance.

In some situations, taking a “sick day” with your kids may not have to be all or nothing. Depending on the nature of your job, you may be able to work remotely for the day. Explain the situation to your employer... If you can get your work done while working around your child’s needs, a smart boss won’t care if you have to step away from the computer for a while.

Divide and Conquer With Your Partner

When navigating working days when kids are sick at home, the ultimate advantage is having a partner who is also available to help. However, traditionally, moms bear the brunt of sick day effects with kids, which has unfortunately led many to leave the workforce. As we continue to define this new era of work, there is an opportunity to make the division of responsibilities at home more equitable, too.

Start by comparing schedules first thing in the morning (or the night before). If it’s possible to reschedule commitments so that they don’t overlap, start there. And if it seems you’ll need to be out of the office for longer than a day or so, strategically plan the days when you go on versus when your partner does.

Having a sick kiddo is hard enough on parents’ hearts. Add in work schedules and, yes, it can be really tough. Further complicating things is that much about working around sick kids depends on the factors unique to your family—from the jobs you have to the resources that are available to the sickness in question. While figuring out a game plan may not be a simple three-step process, working through a few potential scenarios ahead of time can help you make the best of a less-than-ideal situation.

Emily Glover


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