MamaBee wondered: Wearing my manager hat, I bristle at the idea of government involvement in how I manage my employees. How can government possibly understand the unique needs of my business and workers? I’m all for legislating anti-discrimination and family policy — equal pay; affordable, high-quality childcare; and paid family and sick leave, for example. But I’m having a hard time getting my mind around how the government can practically be involved with flexible work.
I wonder how we can continue without government intervention. I’ve no doubt that MamaBee is a terrific manager but that’s my point: she is one manager. For most U.S. employees, your work life balance, your ability to telecommute, to have flextime or comp time, to have paid time off, or to job share, is only as good (or bad) as your manager, your department head, your unit, and/or your company. Most of us are one job reclassification, downsize, merger, acquisition, or reorganization away from instantaneous disappearance of our work life policies.
I too have concerns that legislating work life policies could result in a backlash against hiring women, particularly those of childbearing age. But when I weigh the potential backlash against our federalist patchwork of worker protections, anything is preferable to what we’ve got now, which can be summed up as "not much."
We already see the segregation of women, particularly those with children, into lower paying jobs that have the least worker protections, especially as union membership declines.
Yes, some statutes and regulations exist: the Family and Medical Leave Act and the American’s With Disabilities Act. However, the ADA only covers businesses with 15+ employees. And FMLA is a pathetic excuse for family leave — 12 weeks of unpaid leave if you work for a company with at least 50 employees and you worked at least 1250 hours in the previous year.
Save the Children’s Mother’s Index ranked the US 28th because of our high maternal morbidity and mortality rate and “less generous” maternal leave policies. I wonder how much of that maternal morbidity and mortality could be avoided by strengthening FMLA? If women didn't work until the absolute last minute in an effort to save their measly leave, might our national incidence of preeclampsia – responsible for just about 1 in 5 maternal deaths – be reduced? Might our birth outcomes be improved? Some researchers seem to think so.
Sure it’d be nice for employers to voluntarily create family-friendly policies. But I'd rather force employers' hands via legislation than continue defining what is essentially discrimination against families as a "private matter" to be negotiated between employer and employee. Actually, I feel uncomfortable even using "negotiation" when one party's power so dwarfs the other.
When employers won't do the right thing, or can't because it would hinder them in the free market -- shades of the health care debate -- then legislation is the answer. Businesses learn to cope: FMLA was abhorred by several large business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, as was Title VII (pregnancy nondiscrimination), and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Today employers crumble over requirements but instituing those merger provisions hasn't brought down capitalism.
Employers have had eons to make the workplace a better, fairer place for women and families. Instead we’re seeing national reversal: only 16 percent of employers provide full pay during the period of maternity-related disability, down from 27 percent in 1998. We’re seeing more lawsuits around family responsibilities discrimination. Less pension investment (29 percent in 2008 compared with 48 percent in 1998). Sure some companies (Intel, Raytheon, HP, etc.) have been innovative. But why should that innovation be available only to white collar women?
Without policy to push business we’d still have women being fired for getting married (notable examples being teachers, stewardesses, and women in the postal service). We’d be making even less than we do now. Women still wouldn’t be able to get their own credit. We’d still be getting fired for being pregnant. Just as flextime and other work life policies are seen as part of the private contract between employer and employee, so too were all the aforementioned conditions. All were changed via legislation and/or regulation.
I’m a believer in policy change. When I look at how poorly we regulate protections for pregnant women, and then look at, for example, our world ranking for maternal death (we’re 39th, behind Canada, tiny Malta, Croatia, Serbia, and the United Arab Emirates) I see a need for more regulation, not less.
At a minimum we should have paid maternity leave. We’re the only industrialized nation that doesn’t. At a minimum we should raise the tax credit employers who provide or help pay for childcare (direct payments are more effective than tax credits but politicians HATE direct payment). At a minimum we should have paid sick leave (the late Sen. Kennedy’s bill is still languishing in Congress). Want to stop the spread of H1N1? Give workers in the lowest earning quartile (60ish percent of whom have NO paid time off) guaranteed leave. And the Fair Labor Standards Act should be updated to protect individuals and families from mandatory overtime above, say 55 hours per week, unless an emergency demands it.
What else would you change?