By Wendy Chun-Hoon, DC Director, Family Values @ Work
To recognize Mother’s Day, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing May 10 entitled, Beyond Mother’s Day: Helping the Middle Class Balance Work and Family. The intent was to hear from expert witnesses about the challenges families face today in juggling work and family responsibilities, and what government should do to address these conditions.
The outcome was a rare breaking down of political ideology, and the sparking of at least one bi-partisan solution. The reason for the breakthrough? Kimberly Ortiz, worker at the Statue of Liberty and mother of two.
The hearing opened with the generally shared concern that the American Dream is slipping away for too many families. However, it quickly devolved into arguments that pit good jobs – jobs that pay a decent wage and provide workers with basic benefits such as health insurance, paid sick days and paid family leave – against job creation; an argument that frustrates workers and families who know our nation needs both.
Witnesses presented compelling data as to why paid leave would help America’s competitive edge. The structure of our workforce has changed drastically but employment policies have not kept pace. Our economy still operates on an outdated model which assumes each family has a stay-at-home parent. In fact, women now make up half of the workforce and 40% of families rely on mothers to bring home all or at least half of their family’s income.
Despite this, every day 44 million workers risk losing income or, worse, their jobs because they need to take time off to care for a sick child or take their aging parent to a medical appointment. Competitive edge? The U.S. comes in dead last among all other industrialized nations in its support for these pro-family policies.
But it wasn’t until Kimberly Ortiz shared her story that Committee members started realizing how counterproductive these statistics are to the American Dream. Kimberly, the mother of two young boys both on the autism spectrum, told us how she’d worked in retail since she was 16. As a full-time employee at the Statue of Liberty for nearly five years, she still does not earn enough to avoid food stamps. Here is part of her testimony:
Even with the title of “Assistant Manager,” I was only making $9.25 an hour at the gift shop, catering to New York City’s large tourist economy, where approximately 4 million people visit each year, at $20 per ticket. Despite the steady flow of tourists to the Statue and their steady hours of operation, I was only notified of my weekly schedule 3‐4 days ahead of time…Still, I was eager to work hard – I often volunteered to come in early or stay late – whatever was needed to get the job done.
[With the birth of] my first son Aidan, I took a month and a half off without pay, because that job didn’t offer any paid time off….Once Aidan was born, my manager’s attitude completely changed toward me. I still wanted to work full time, but …because I couldn’t come in at 5:30am anymore, they cut me from 40‐45 hours per week to 15‐20, even though I had seniority, was available for more hours, and desperately needed them. My managers were not flexible with my hours, even though I had been extremely flexible for them.
Managers started calling me unreliable, and if any emergency popped up (as is typical with any newborn), I was given a hard time. One time, my son got really sick with a double ear infection, and I had to take 4 days off. My manager told me she couldn’t guarantee there would be no repercussions for this unexpected time off when I called her from the hospital emergency room.
The tenor of Q&A began to change. One senator remarked on the striking dichotomy between the benefits offered to attract higher-wage workers and the obvious race-to-the bottom to deny low-wage jobs these same protections. Another senator asked the panel of witnesses how exactly to remedy this disparity if not through public policy.
And then it happened. The irony of a worker, employed by a firm, under federal contract, providing the womanpower that fuels the Statue of Liberty – the national landmark symbolizing Americans’ aspiration to reach the middle class – working hard and playing by the rules but shut out of the Dream, smacked head-on into Washington politics…and won. From Sen. Michael Enzi, a Republican from Wyoming, came a clear, sensible proposal that, at the very least, we ought to require that taxpayer dollars flowing to private contractors support pro-family (pro-American values) job standards like paying workers a decent wage and affording them the right to earn a few paid sick days a year.
This mother’s story moved the room from a stalemate about the “right” thing to do, to a proposal about the sensible thing to do. Thank you, Kimberly Ortiz, for sharing your story and sparking a bi-partisan revolution. We at Family Values @ Work and our allies will continue to work with the Retail Action Group that you are part of to make this proposal – along with policies like paid sick days and affordable family leave – a reality for you and all workers in this country.