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Slack and Sick Kids
What does a culture of resiliency require?
Our household has had an easier fall than a lot of families with small kids. My nearly three-year-old was out for a day with a fever last week, but bounced back quickly. A number of her classmates have been out for days with the flu.
At The Washington Post, Abha Bhattarai has a reported piece on the big spike in parents who are missing work because they don’t have childcare. That childcare gap is partly driven by sickness, when children have to stay home, and partly by the shortage of slots for parents who want paid childcare.
A surge in childcare slots (though very welcome!) doesn’t solve the sickout problem. My family is lucky to have a flexible arrangement (I work from home, my boss is understanding, my work doesn’t tend to involve sharp deadlines/urgent crunches).
But I remember last January, when a combination of sick days and snow days meant we only had childcare for about two days a week for three weeks running. It’s hard to sustain, even with a flexible job.
There are a number of adaptations that can happen on the family side:
Grandparents living close by (or even in the backyard in an ADU)
A parent choosing to work part time and/or from home (as I do)
Finding a babysitter who is bookable on short notice and doesn’t mind caring for contagious children (haha)
Maybe that last is a good solution if the “Sick Kids Babysitting Club” is run by a pharma company who needs predicable disease exposures for a clinical trial of new vaccines. But, in practice, if my kids are sick, I want to be the one taking care of them. It’s hard on them, and I want to be on call for them—especially since their preferred analgesic is just sitting on me indefinitely.
So, what does the employment-side accommodation look like that would make family sick days more sustainable?
We’ve gotten a stark portrait of the opposite approach as the rail workers have pushed to have any sick days at all, and have had their demands rejected by the rail companies and their attempts to broker a compromise harshly shut down by Congress.
Eric Levitz offers a clear explainer of the history of “precision-scheduled railroading” (PSR) and why it’s untenable for workers. The railroads have cut their personnel by eliminating slack. Instead of predictable schedules and the ability to take days off, they demand their workers are constantly on call, working irregular shifts with no ability to plan time off or tolerate unexpected sick days.
They’ve deliberately built a system so lean that there’s no second line of workers to sub in. Levitz writes:
The freight carriers can afford to make concessions on pay. It isn’t that painful to increase wages by a sizable amount when you’ve recently slashed your head count by 30 percent (and hope to continue innovating your way to a smaller payroll in the years to come). But providing rail workers with ordinary time-off benefits would threaten the industry’s core business strategy, an operating procedure that has helped to nearly double its profits over the past decade.
That strategy is predicated on treating rail workers as if they were nearly indistinguishable from the railcars they drive. The typical railcar requires maintenance at predictable intervals and does not require an unanticipated day off to see a doctor about an unexplained pain or to visit a loved one in the hospital. But workers often do.
A resilient system has to be a more “wasteful” system. It has people who aren’t being used to maximum capacity so that they have something in reserve.
I’ve worked places where there’s plenty of slack, but, most often, I’d say it wasn’t the result of a deliberate decision. The slack came out of a lack of urgency, plus the existence of frequent, bureaucratic obstacles. Sick days were never the main cause of slowness.
The best approach I’ve seen came when I worked at a start-up remittance company. Our money transfers, our software, our customer support all needed to be resilient, so we approached HR in a similar spirit.
There was cross training on different tasks, so nothing relied on only person. (Our main bank transfers person couldn’t take vacation until we had a real understudy for him). We spent more time documenting what we were doing, so tasks could be handed off. There was also generous vacation, with a certain minimum required. Everything had to be able to run without you, so it was easier to cover when someone was out unexpectedly. During one ectopic pregnancy, my boss said to take as much time as I needed, and he meant it.
But all that was cushioned by money. I think that is the only for-profit business I’ve worked at, and it was supported by a strong business model + some venture capital. (It was a genuinely profitable business).