Finally, a prime time TV show depicts what the lack of paid leave looks like for millions of Americans, the ones who stock shelves rather than selling stocks. The show is called “Superstore” and NBC has just renewed it for a second season.
When Cheyenne, a young and very pregnant employee at superstore Cloud 9, seems to be going into labor, her co-workers urge her to leave. “I can’t go home,” she says. “I need the hours for this little girl.” Her co-worker Jonah points out that Cheyenne shouldn’t have to forfeit her pay to have a baby – yes! that’s exactly what lack of paid leave means! Paid maternity leave is “automatic” in every other first world country, he notes — not to mention that Cloud 9 made over a billion dollars the previous year.
— Family Values @ Work (@FmlyValuesWork) March 2, 2016
Jonah convinces the associate manager — the superb America Ferrera who also produces the show — to call Human Resources and ask whether they can give Cheyenne some paid leave. The response? “That’s just not something we offer.”
The episode nails what happens next. Jonah hadn’t actually thought of trying to organize a union; he just speculated that workplaces that do provide paid leave are likely unionized, and boom – corporate offices swing into action. They send a high-level manager to preside over a mandatory meeting on the dangers of unions. Praising the store’s open door policy, this manager claims that unions are for companies where management doesn’t listen to the workers. He then dodges every question with platitudes such as, “Cloud 9 is devoted to the health and welfare of all its workers” –and offers more donut holes when Jonah brings up the need for paid leave.
Jonah keeps the group in the break area after the manager leaves and gets them thinking about how they’re treated. An older woman says, “I haven’t had a raise in six years.” Another worker is upset that the company keeps them just under 40 hours a week to avoid paying benefits. But when Jonah tries to get the group to consider a union or a walkout, a co-worker reminds him they couldn’t even agree on a theme for the company barbeque.
The show has a large multi-racial cast. Some details are spot on. For example, when Cheyenne has contractions, Jonah asks if there’s a doctor in the house – and ignores his co-worker, an older Black woman, who says she’s a trained midwife. In other instances it disappoints, such as the all-too-familiar caricature of an Asian gay guy.
SPOILER ALERT: Cheyenne does wind up giving birth in the store. Her boss, Glenn, an evangelical who used to own a hardware store put out of business by Cloud 9, informs Cheyenne he’s giving her six weeks suspension – with pay – for making a mess in the store. The anti-union manager overhears and fires Glenn on the spot. Amy is offered the promotion – but instead, she starts a chain of co-workers whispering the magic word: walk out now. And almost all of them do – at the cost of their own jobs. We won’t know til next season how that works out.
Delivering a baby at work, viewed by shoppers on multiple large-screen TVs, may be the stuff of sit com, but the reality of lousy pay, union-busting and no leave is quite real in the U.S. Nearly one in four pregnant women who are employed return to work within two weeks of giving birth, mostly because, like Cheyenne, they can’t afford to be off without pay. That’s as far from Cloud 9 as you can get.
by Ellen Bravo