The Architecture of Work and Family

We hear a lot of talk in the united states today about "family values" and "personal responsibility." And yet being a good family member here can cost you your job or a career opportunity, or imperil your health and security. Conversely, being a conscientious employee can jeopardize a loved one, destroy a relationship (or prevent you from forming one), add to the health or learning problems of a dependent child, force an aging parent into a nursing home, or create a public-health hazard.

Choices Nobody Should Have to Make

Consider these examples:

Robbie, a member of the organization 9to5 in Milwaukee, lost her fast-food job when her son called to say that his younger brother had been hit by a car. "Leave and you're fired," the boss told her. Robbie pleaded with her manager to see the urgency of the situation, but he refused. She left anyway, and took the boy to the emergency room, where the hospital staff determined that he had a broken arm.

Julie was in a much higher-paying job than Robbie, but felt she was being driven out after spending 13 years there. "You have to be willing to give it all to the company," she told me at a gathering of professional women in Milwaukee. "There are no role models of women with young kids in upper management. They wanted me to fly somewhere on July 4th. When I told them I had family plans, they were aghast."

Jane got flexibility at her job -- but paid for it in compensation, benefits, and opportunity. An engineer for a large organization that always lands on the "best places to work" lists, Jane loves her job and is grateful that she was able to reduce her workweek to 30 hours. But that's not all that was cut. "Health insurance has a significantly higher premium [for part-timers]," Jane explained in an e-mail to a statewide women's project known as Wisconsin Women Equal Prosperity. "Vacation and sick time are cut in half regardless of hours worked per week. I lost tuition reimbursement and paid maternity leave. Holiday pay was just eliminated. I've been promoted three times, but now have hit the limit [of advancement opportunities]."

And it's not just women's jobs that are affected; so is women's ability to be conscientious parents. Teachers say that since welfare "reform," they've never seen so many kids coming to school sick -- or older kids missing school to watch a young sibling or cousin -- because their parents aren't able to stay home. Before you blame the parents, though, be aware that many students are making these decisions themselves because of the work demands placed on their mothers and fathers.

Robbie's son got hit by the car before she left for work; he chose not to tell her because he knew she'd be fired if she didn't go in. Carissa Peppard, then 21 years old, came to Washington, D.C., in 2005 with her mother and other 9to5 activists to speak to their senators. She told me she always tried to drag herself to school when she was sick. "I'd wonder whether I should tell my mom. Would we have groceries this week if she had to stay home with me?'"

Powerful Social Changes, Feeble Policies

The workforce has changed enormously in the last 30 years, but the workplace has not kept pace. Thanks to greater opportunities and greater financial pressure, women have streamed into paid employment. [See Heather Boushey, "Values Begin at Home, But Who's Home?"] While some employers have made the workplace family-friendly (more on this later), many operate as if workers were all still men with wives at home full time. For certain groups of women, particularly African Americans and immigrants, that picture was never accurate -- a majority of mothers always worked. Now working mothers -- even those with infants -- are the norm.

Where workplace policies do exist, they're often at the margins and unrelated to how work is organized. One memo announces you can work part time, another outlines the benefits you'll lose if you reduce your hours. Managers describe the leave policy, then scold you for not having more billable hours. Women can climb the corporate ladder -- provided they're available to meet, move, or travel at a moment's notice.

Social class and rank may affect benefits as well. In some workplaces, managers have lactation rooms; assembly-line workers, however, don't even get breaks. Less than 5 percent of employers have on-site child-care centers -- and frontline workers can't always afford the fees. Or the center may coexist with mandatory overtime. Professional women like Jane often lose benefits and opportunities when they reduce hours, but workers at Wal-Mart and many other places see their hours cut or capped without their consent, and any health and pension benefits disappear altogether. For low-wage workers, "personal days" mean the ones you don't clock in.

Deficient employer policies reflect the sorely outmoded public policies that set minimum standards for how workers are treated. Whenever I speak to groups of women looking for work, they tell stories of being asked by recruiters about their future family plans. "Isn't that illegal?" someone will ask. It is illegal to ask women and not men -- but in most states and localities, it's not illegal to ask both. Only Alaska and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination based on family-care responsibility.

It's easy to forget that until 1978, it was perfectly legal in this country to fire someone for being pregnant. Two years earlier, the Supreme Court ruled that it was not discrimination to treat "pregnant people" differently, because not all women are pregnant. You may not think Congress knows much, but even its members understood that pregnancy does have something to do with sex. After much organizing by grass-roots groups, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which prohibited firing or refusing to hire someone for being pregnant.

But the law has a big loophole: It doesn't require the employer to hold the woman's job for her when she leaves to give birth. I've never understood how that's not tantamount to firing, but lawyers say otherwise. The PDA also requires that employers with temporary-disability programs include pregnancy along with other short-term disabilities. Before then, many did not. However, the majority of women didn't then and still don't work for firms that offer temporary-disability benefits. And pregnant women weren't the only ones needing consideration at work.

Groups then organized to pass the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which included a job guarantee, covered men as well as women, and included a broader range of care needs. Employer lobbyists proclaimed that any such bill was unnecessary, because businesses were already providing leave. Turns out most of those employers were simply complying with the PDA. Two-thirds had to change their policy after passage of the law -- many to include men, or adoptive parents, or to allow for time to care for a seriously ill family member.

Although it was a critical first step, the FMLA is fairly meager. It applies only to firms of 50 or more employees and covers only those who work at least 25 hours a week and have been on the job at least a year. That leaves out more than two in five private-sector workers. The narrow definition of "family" means that those who need time to care for domestic partners, siblings, in-laws, or other relatives may be out of luck. And the fact that the FMLA is unpaid renders it moot for large numbers of workers.

The FMLA has another enormous limitation: It applies only to serious illness. Fortunately, most kids don't get leukemia, but they all get stomach flus and colds and a host of other ailments not covered by this law. Not to worry, proclaim the business lobbyists: Workers can use their sick days for that. But half of those in the workforce -- and three-fourths of low-wage workers, plus five-sixths of part-time workers -- don't have any paid sick days to use. Many who do have the benefit aren't allowed to use it to care for a sick family member.

What's at Stake

Thanks to the lopsided share of family caregiving that falls to women, the biological demands of pregnancy, and the still-prevalent gender stereotyping in the workplace, women are disproportionately harmed by these outmoded systems. But males feel the fallout as well. Many more men would be better fathers, sons, husbands if they weren't punished for it at work. Men who earn low wages have little or no wiggle room. Men in managerial or professional jobs are expected to be fathers and are patted on the back for leaving work early to take in a kid's soccer game -- unless they begin to act too much like mothers, in which case their pay and promotions begin to dip.

In reality, everyone needs time to care. Even those who aren't parents have parents. Others have partners who may need care. And everyone faces the prospect of needing time themselves to heal from an illness or an injury.

Employers can do a lot by implementing effective practices, many of which cost little or nothing, and all of which strengthen the bottom line. These include flexible scheduling -- allowing employees to take a parent for a checkup or attend a child's school play and make up the time, to stagger start and end times to accommodate child-care hours or commuter traffic, and to swap shifts with coworkers. Any overtime or shift changes should be voluntary. Employees should have paid time off for routine illnesses, in addition to accommodation for more demanding events like a new child or a seriously ill family member. The guarantees and time period of the FMLA should be the minimum employers adopt. Employers should also offer quality part-time options -- reduced hours with at least prorated benefits, equitable hourly rates, and equal access to training and promotional opportunities. That could mean employees working a shorter week, sharing a job with a coworker, gradually increasing hours after returning from leave, or gradually cutting hours when phasing into retirement. Policies should be formal and open to all employees.

What workers want is recognition that life doesn't begin and end at the workplace. Even employers who can't afford to set up an on-site child-care center can link employees with local referral agencies. Those with more resources can provide subsidies for dependent care -- for elders as well as young children -- or help increase the supply of quality care. Innovative employers have also come up with short-term, no-interest loans to help employees stay employed when hit with unexpected expenses.

How successful such policies are depends on corporate culture. As Barbara Wankoff from the audit, tax, and advisory firm KPMG noted, employers can offer all kinds of programs and policies, "but it's the message that leadership sends with those policies that really dictates how they're used."

Above all, we need a sea change in how employers measure success, advancing people based on work quality rather than face time.

The good news is that model policies exist in many places, and they work. Research continually reminds us that workers who feel respected as whole people show greater loyalty and improved performance. Costs for family-friendly benefits pale besides the price tag for employee turnover. The business-advisory firm Deloitte & Touche, for instance, claims to have saved $41.5 million in turnover costs as a result of family-flexible policies. Expenses per employee are less when low-wage workers leave the job, but the overall costs remain significant because of the high rate of turnover.

Consider SAS, a software company based in North Carolina. From its founding in 1976, company owner Jim Goodnight determined to create for every employee the same work environment that executives would want for themselves. The guy's not a flaky New Ager. He knows there's a link between a good work environment, healthy and happy workers, and satisfied customers. And the numbers bear him out: SAS has a 98 percent renewal rate for its services, and only 3 percent to 4 percent turnover in an industry whose average rate is 22 percent. SAS has never had a down year, even when high-tech companies were tanking across the country. Aside from the company's myriad benefits, the largest on-site child-care centers in the state, and employee involvement in decision making, what most impressed students in my graduate course was SAS's 35-hour workweek. At the high end, employees don't put in more than 45 hours. Even the CEO leaves at 6 o'clock, when the gates close. Why? Because this is an employer that realizes that workers perform better when they are rested. No wonder SAS has been called "the world's sanest company."

Success stories like this one do move other employers to action. Spreading the word is important. But expecting all business owners to follow suit is like thinking 2-year-olds can decide when they need a time-out from play. We need to guarantee a reasonable floor for all workers, and that means public-policy changes. These include guarantees of paid sick days; accessible and affordable family leave paid for by the shared risk of a social-insurance fund; equity for part-time workers; and quality, affordable dependent care. It also means a reasonable workweek with no mandatory overtime. Such policies will work only with a meaningful wage floor: Money is a work/life issue.

What Is Being Done

I coordinate a network of state coalitions working to expand paid leave and other family-flexible options. These groups are made up of diverse allies, from the AARP to the ACLU -- grass-roots groups fighting for kids, economic justice, worker's rights, and aging populations, alongside progressive employers, teachers and school principals, interfaith councils, and disability activists. The network, known as the Multi-States Working Families Consortium, is a new model of collaboration, where groups raise funds together and share them equally. They also share strategies, materials, and organizing tips.

Each of these groups and many others are winning changes at the state and local level, as well as working together for new federal policies. In 2004, a state coalition in California successfully won expansion of its Family Temporary Disability Insurance (FTDI) program to cover leave for other family-care purposes. Groups in New York and New Jersey, two other states with FTDI funds, are working to do the same. Washington, Massachusetts, and Illinois are looking for ways to create a new social-insurance fund for this purpose. A number of states have bills pending that would expand access to the FMLA or to allow its use for routine school and medical appointments. Last November, San Francisco passed the nation's first citywide ordinance to guarantee a minimum number of paid sick days to all employees. Groups from Maine to Montana will be introducing similar measures in city councils and state legislatures.

Together, such coalitions are laying the basis for a family-friendly future and building the power to make it happen. The changes they seek aren't a favor for women, but a better way of doing business and building strong families.

Ellen Bravo, former director of 9to5, coordinates the Multi-State Working Families Consortium and is the author of Taking on the Big Boys.

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