Swine Flu Update: Sick Days, Breastfeeding Guidelines and More Tracking Resources

By Christine Cupaiuolo — May 4, 2009

If you have flu symptoms, the CDC — and President Obama — recommend that you stay home. But how realistic is that?

As Rachel previously noted, the swine flu has prompted numerous advocacy groups to point out the gaps in our health and social welfare systems — such as a lack of paid sick days — that complicate our ability to address public health needs during a pandemic. New York Times columnist Judith Warner raised the issue in a recent blog post, prompting a discussion on health care and public policy that has garnered more than 300 comments.

“Nearly half of all private sector workers in our country – more than 59 million people – have no paid sick time at all,” writes Warner, pointing to a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “The problem is particularly acute among women, low-wage workers – more than three-quarters of whom have no paid sick days – and part-timers.”

Warner talked with Silvia Del Valle, a 42-year-old restaurant worker in Miami, who said she would go to work despite having a cough and a fever. If she didn’t go, she would lose her job. Warner continues:

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, only 14 percent of the people serving and handling food in restaurants can stay home from work when they’re coughing and sneezing, without fear of losing their jobs. José Oliva, the policy coordinator for the advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, told me that among the food service employees he normally counsels – many of whom, like Del Valle, speak poor English and earn well below the minimum wage for tipped employees – only about one percent can stay home sick without the fear of losing pay or even their jobs.

Del Valle has been working in Miami-area restaurants for seven years. She currently works nine hours a night for a flat fee of $30, and sends much of those earnings home to her parents and teenage daughter in Argentina.

Had she ever had the right to a paid sick day, I asked her.

“Not in this country,” she said.

Had she ever had any benefits?

“Never in this country,” she answered.

“Never in this country” is the sort of phrase that ought, in our country, to be paired with concepts like “unaffordable health care” or “lack of maternity leave” or “lack of ability to stay home in case of pandemic.” Instead, thanks to business groups, it has long applied to any workplace policy that could bring substantial quality of life improvements – including basic job security – to American families.

Plus: The CDC this weekend published information on what parents should know about the flu and breastfeeding.

Two important points: It is OK to breastfeed your baby if you are sick, even if you’re being treated for the flu, and it is OK to breastfeed if your baby is sick. “One of the best things you can do for your sick baby is keep breastfeeding,” the site states. (Of course, there’s a lot more that can be done to support women who breastfeed, but that’s a post for later this week.)

The CDC previously issued Interim Guidance—Pregnant Women and Swine Influenza: Considerations for Clinicians, which addresses the presentation of the disease in pregnant women, along with prevention, treatment and breastfeeding considerations. The guidelines were updated on Friday.

As for more general resources, PandemicFlu.gov is a good source of domestic and global information. Technology columnist Don Reisinger identifies more online resources for tracking the flu, including social media sites with heavy coverage.

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