Prof. Joan C. Williams

(WOMENSENEWS)–A telephone company employee was fired for using the company’s phone equipment to check on her young children at home, one of whom was asthmatic.

A customer service representative was fired when she left work unauthorized because her pregnant teen daughter went into labor.

A packer was fired when she left work unauthorized after receiving a call that her 4-year-old daughter was being taken to the emergency room with a head injury.

A bus driver was fired for arriving at work three minutes late after her severely asthmatic child suffered an attack.

In most cases, women working in such white-collar fields as academia, law and consulting don’t think twice before picking up the phone to call home or coming to work a few minutes late. But for many women in hourly wage jobs such flexibility is a luxury, according to a recent study.

“One Sick Child Away From Being Fired: When Opting Out Is Not an Option,” released March 14 by the Center for WorkLife Law, a research and advocacy group at the University of California-Hastings, analyzes data from 99 published union arbitration cases. The workers cited–drivers, nurse’s aides, telephone operators, typists–care for children, grandchildren, spouses or elderly parents.

Joan C. Williams, a law professor at Hastings who authored the report, says she wanted to correct what she calls a “black hole in press coverage of this issue in terms of public policy.”

Most news media, she says, describe “work-life balance” as a question of restrictive employment practices preventing professional women from having both a fulfilling career and home life. But this is a skewed picture, she says.

“Most professionals have at least some flexibility,” Williams writes. “Among the working class, forget getting an hour off to see the school play; you can get fired for leaving to pick up a sick child at school.”

And because work-life balance is perceived as a concern of only white-collar women, Williams says many legislators are not interested in addressing it further. She says a staffer on Capitol Hill once told her: “My boss is not interested in the problems of professional women.”

Families Vulnerable to Crisis

Inflexible work schedules, coupled with a lack of high-quality, accessible child care, make working-class families especially vulnerable when a crisis strikes, the report found. The traditional breadwinner-homemaker model–where the husband has a blue-collar job and holds only a high school diploma and the wife handles the home front–describes only 16 percent of working-class families. In the rest, both parents have jobs and many “tag-team” or work opposite time shifts so there will always be one adult at home with the children.

But if one parent falls sick, is forbidden from leaving work or is required to work mandatory overtime on short notice–or if child care arrangements fall through for some reason–a caregiver who decides not to go into work to look after a child or parent is putting her job on the line.

The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act gives workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid annual leave to care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition. However, the only eligible workers are those who have been with a company that employs more than 50 workers for more than 12 months. Less than half of U.S. workers are covered by this act.

Williams says the workers described in her report are not even the worst off. “The heart-wrenching thing is that they are the lucky ones,” she told Women’s eNews. That’s because all the workers in the arbitration cases belonged to unions that filed grievances on their behalf.

According to the Department of Labor, 87.5 percent of the U.S. labor force was not unionized in 2005. These workers are not protected under a union contract stipulating a grievance procedure for unreasonable or unfair discharge. When they are fired or discharged, they usually have little legal recourse.

U.S. Lags in Family-Friendly Policies

A comparison of public policies for working families across 168 countries, published in 2004 by Harvard University’s Project on Global Working Families, finds the United States lagging far behind many developed and developing countries.

At least 84 countries have laws that set the maximum length of the working week, a requirement to ensure parents’ ability to provide routine care for their children. The United States lacks such a law and does not limit the amount of mandatory overtime an employer can require per week. At least 37 countries have policies guaranteeing parents some type of paid leave specifically for when their children are ill; the United States does not.

Nonetheless, Williams says there are straightforward steps U.S. employers could take tomorrow to improve working conditions without limiting productivity.

One is to make personal-leave time available in smaller increments than a day; as brief as two hours. This, she says, would give caregivers enough time to attend parent-teacher conferences or take a sick child to a doctor.

Redesigning Overtime

Another step is to redesign mandatory overtime systems. Most employers assume that all workers want overtime to earn extra money. The reality, says Williams, is that many single and tag-teaming parents can’t afford to take on overtime because of commitments at home.

“What will happen, if you fail to take this into account, is absenteeism,” she warns. Instead, overtime should be made as voluntary as possible and employers should negotiate ahead of time with caregivers so they can arrange for child care.

Williams stresses that “most employers are people of goodwill” who want to help their employees balance their work and family lives. But even if they’re not, there are well-documented economic reasons for improving workplace flexibility for their blue-collar workers.

A 2004 study by the Washington-based Corporate Voices for Working Families, a nonprofit network of companies, found that increased workplace flexibility improves worker engagement and commitment to the company, reduces their stress levels which in turn reduces turnover and absenteeism and improves recruitment efforts, all of which improve the bottom line.

Some companies that hire professionals have begun to offer individualized flexibility to their employees, says Williams, and now it’s time for employers of blue and pink-collar workers to do the same.

Anju Mary Paul is a freelance cultural reporter based in New York City. She holds an M.A. in journalism from New York University.

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