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Sunday, May 14, 2006

One Sick Child or In-Need-of-a-Regular-Life-Thing Away from Job Loss

In honor of Mother's Day: Thanks Mom, we all love you!

Ruth Marcus at WaPo discusses "a report by the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California at Hastings: "One Sick Child Away From Being Fired: When Opting Out is Not an Option." With that stark title, the report punctures the entitled, self-referential perspective from which journalists tend to write about working mothers."

"As the author, law professor Joan C. Williams, writes, "The media tend to cover work/family conflict as the story of professional mothers 'opting out' of fast-track careers" -- an "overly autobiographical approach" that, however unintentionally, misrepresents the full nature of the problem and skews the discussion of potential solutions."

Hmmph. I'll say.

She goes on to write:

Williams studied almost 100 union arbitrations that, she writes, "provide a unique window into how work and family responsibilities clash in the lives of bus drivers, telephone workers, construction linemen, nurse's aides, carpenters, welders, janitors and others." Many are mothers, but this is not just a female problem. Divorced fathers, and families that patch together tag-team care, with parents working different shifts, are similarly vulnerable. Indeed, nearly everyone is a potential victim of child-care plans gone awry: Among working-class couples, only 16 percent have families in which one parent is the breadwinner and the other stays home.

The stories Williams relates are foreign to those of us lucky enough to have flexible jobs and understanding bosses -- for whom it's no big deal to step out in the middle of the day to go to the school play. A bus driver is fired when she arrives three minutes late because of her son's asthma attack; a packer loses her job for leaving work because her daughter is in the emergency room with a head injury. A police officer is suspended for failing to report for unscheduled duty; she had arranged baby-sitting for her three children for her regular 4 p.m. shift, but couldn't -- without notice -- find baby-sitting for the noon-to-4 slot she'd been ordered to work.

You read these accounts and you think: These stories can't possibly be true. If true, they can't possibly be typical. Leave aside human decency and just consider economic rationality: Surely the cost of finding a new worker has to be bigger than the inconvenience of accommodating the existing one.

But, Williams says when I call to ask about this, "We hear these kinds of things all the time." She attributes the phenomenon in part to rigid, no-fault disciplinary policies under which amassing a certain number of demerits requires dismissal, and in part to employers' lag time in adjusting to the reality of a new, two-earner workforce -- not just in the upper echelons of professional workers but among hourly employees as well.

Even if these examples are extreme, it's clear that corporate willingness to design flexible workplaces has been far greater in the executive offices than on the factory floor. According to studies cited in the report, flexible schedules are available for nearly two-thirds of workers who earn more than $71,000 annually -- but for less than a third of those with incomes under $28,000. Over half of working-class employees are not permitted to take time off to care for sick children.

At the end she becomes self-referential once again. I only wish she and others "for whom a call from the school nurse is just an annoying intrusion, not a financial disaster in the making" would do more than write self-referential articles, stories and columns or simply shake their heads and say "tsk, tsk, too bad for them" and actually use their privileges and entitlements to advocate change and extend those benefits to others while shining a light on these and other similar realities experienced by poor and working worker on a regular, ongoing basis. (Most of whom are not on a factory floor nor in a union, unfortunately.)

Marcus' WaPo column is here.

TV viewing recommendation: My son's union is going to be featured on 60 Minutes tonight, btw. Go SEIU! And thanks, son, for being my reason to celebrate mother's day! SWAK xoxoxoxo

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