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The Family as Firing Offense

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By Ruth Marcus
Sunday, May 14, 2006

The school nurse and I are on a first-name basis these days. "Hi, Ruth," she says with a practiced tone, regret blended with calm. "It's Elizabeth" -- and, because she's a pro, immediately, "Not an emergency." And then she relates the ailment du jour -- Julia with suspected strep, again; Emma with a wire poking out of her braces, again. So I sigh, pack up my papers (or, less frequently, call my husband, and he packs up his) and head over to school.

This may sound like it's going to be one of those self-pitying Mother's Day columns. It's not. I've done my fair share of agonizing in print about the implacable tensions between work and family, but I'm moved this Mother's Day to feel rather sheepish about such laments.

The reason for my embarrassment is 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.

Guilty as charged.

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.

Some of this inflexibility is unsurprising (after all, lower-skilled workers are far more easily replaced); some of it is unavoidable. I can write this column from home -- I did, at the kitchen table -- but I couldn't drive a bus or make a hotel bed from there. Yet there is much more that employers could do -- and some especially far-thinking ones already are doing -- to let employees work compressed schedules, share jobs or adjust hours to their children's school days. Legislative solutions, such as expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act to let workers take unpaid leave to attend a teacher conference, care for a sick child or help an elderly parent, ought to be considered as well.

I'm not trying here to diminish the angst that confronts professional women searching for the elusive right balance; I experience it myself every day. But this Mother's Day, I'm feeling less torn and more grateful -- as all of us should be for whom a call from the school nurse is just an annoying intrusion, not a financial disaster in the making.

marcusr@washpost.com


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