"One sick child away from being fired"

Think Wall Street's family unfriendly? Try Main Street.

Published March 15, 2006 3:57PM (EST)

Speaking of "opting out," let's remember that for your average American worker, it's not exactly an option -- even for an afternoon. In fact, a study released yesterday by the Center for WorkLife Law, a research and advocacy group at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, confirms -- vividly -- that blue-collar employees are not exactly celebrated for choosing family over work.

"Most professionals have at least some flexibility," said Joan C. Williams, a legal scholar and work/family researcher who heads the Center for WorkLife Law, in a press release. "Among the working class, forget getting an hour off to see the school play -- you can get fired for leaving to pick up a sick child at school."

The 83-page report, "One Sick Child Away From Being Fired: When 'Opting Out' Isn't an Option," analyzes 99 cases of work vs. life conflict that went to arbitration (the legal negotiation process for union workers). Examples: a bus driver fired for arriving three minutes late (her son had had a severe asthma attack); a grandfather at a tractor supply company fired for refusing to work unscheduled overtime (he had to care for his 18-month-old grandchild); a packer fired for leaving work early (she'd just gotten word that her daughter was in the E.R. with a head injury).

Employers won in 43 percent of these cases, employees in 21 percent. (The rest were split decisions.) And those were mostly employees with unions on their side -- it's hard to imagine that nonunion workers would fare much better.

The report provides a list of "best-practice policies" for adapting the workplace to ... reality: "Continuing to define the ideal worker as someone who never has competing family responsibilities is not only unrealistic and uneconomic -- it does not fit with the kind of family values that workers and their employers share."

It also offers this message to the press: "It is time to stop relegating coverage to the 'Style' sections of newspapers and to stories that cover only the work/family conflicts of professional women ... No editor would cover unemployment only through human-interest stories discussing the experience of a few of the reporter's unemployed professional friends." (Ooh, snap!)

Another zinger: "The crucial message is that work/family conflict is not just a professional women's issue. The press's overly autobiographical approach to covering work/family issues has a negative impact on public policy. Policymakers (state and federal) need to come to terms with a hard fact: their inaction leaves many conscientious workers vulnerable for doing what virtually any parent, spouse, or child would do ... Once the press stops covering work/family issues as just a problem for professional women, policymakers will stand face to face with a central irony: In a country committed to the family values of caring for children, elders, and the ill, the lack of supports for hard-working families creates everyday crises for many ordinary Americans."

I'd put the above "committed" in quotes, but point taken. Now we'll see how many reporters work overtime to get this story right.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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