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Family Values Can’t End at the Workplace Door

July 27, 2012

Who takes care of the caretaker’s daughter when the caretaker’s busy taking care? Or for that matter, who cares for the seamstress’s son or the restaurant worker’s mom while the workers scramble to pay the bills?

The answer often is no one – or someone, usually female, who takes a financial hit for doing so. When the person responsible for caregiving is in a higher-level job, she may have more flexibility, but suffer a career hit for using it, not to mention the stress and sleep deprivation from working into the wee hours.

Not since the move from farm to factory has the United States seen such a sweeping social transformation as has taken place in recent years. Today only one in five households with children has a parent home full time, compared with 45% in 1975. And the number of single mothers has more than doubled, now accounting for two in five children born today.

Women have poured into employment because they wanted to and because they had to, and have permanently changed the face of the workforce. Some employers have done a great job adjusting. But the workplace in general still functions as if workers are men with wives at home full time.

As a result, missing work to take care of yourself or a loved one can trigger financial disaster. The loss of three days’ pay for a low-income family is the equivalent of a month’s worth of groceries. Even middle-income families can tumble into serious debt or bankruptcy when they need to take a longer unpaid leave for birth or care of a serious personal or family illness.

The toll is particularly great on women, and disproportionately falls on women of color. One reason for pay inequity is the loss of income and advancement opportunity that comes from taking time off to be a good parent or follow doctor’s orders. Too often the boss says, “Sorry, I need someone who’s more dedicated and dependable,” or “Here’s our leave policy: If you leave, don’t come back.”

Consider the numbers.

Forty-four million people in this country don’t have a single paid sick day to use for routine illness, and many who do can’t use the time to care for a sick family member. As for family leave for birth or a serious illness, half the workforce isn’t covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act; others can’t afford to take the 12 weeks allowed because it’s unpaid. In the richest country in the world, half of all women who give birth do not receive any pay during their leave, forcing many to return to work before it is best for mother or child.

Ask Ms. Caroline Pinkston in Atlanta, Georgia. When she had to have brain surgery, Ms. Pinkston just wanted to know her daughters would be at her side when she awoke. Neither of them was able to, because their employers said they couldn’t use their sick time to care for their mother.

Or ask Chanita Lewis of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She associates the joyous birth of her second child with being forced out of her home. Chanita and her husband and the kids had to move in with her parents to get by.

It’s time for a new set of public policies to guarantee that all women – and men – can care for themselves and loved ones without risking their financial security.

Here are the two most important changes needed: guarantee workers the right to earn a minimum number of paid sick days and create a social insurance fund for workers to draw on when they’re out on family leave.

Ms. Pinkston couldn’t change her medical condition. But she and her daughters are active in a campaign to change the law. So is Chanita Lewis.

They’re among thousands of activists around the country who are determined to make this the nation we deserve: one where no one has to risk a job to be a good family member, or jeopardize a loved one’s well-being in order to keep a job.

Fixing this mismatch isn’t a favor to women – it’s a better way to run a business and to run the economy. To emerge from this financial downturn, economists say we need to stop job loss as well as create new jobs. Workers need income to spend to help Main Street businesses, whose owners cite lack of sales – not labor costs — as their number one problem.

The movement to win earned sick days and family leave insurance is bringing together broad and diverse coalitions, led by women but drawing on support from labor, business owners, public health officials, faith leaders, and activists for racial justice, children and seniors, and for an end to poverty.

The stakes are high: the financial stability of families, the viability of our economy, the well-being of children and seniors, and the chance for women to achieve equality both in and out of the home.

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