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May 14, 2006
One Sick Child Away From Being Fired

Ruth Marcus looks at an issue for mothers in the workplace that often gets little coverage from the media. With media conglomerates aiming for prized demographics, usually any discussion of workplace challenges for mothers revolve around high-powered executives hitting glass ceilings as they attempt to balance family and career concerns. For most working women, that dilemma would represent a slice of heaven, for more often they worry about keeping their jobs at all when family emergencies hit:

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.

Marcus writes about the almost implacable tension between employee and employer when a child suddenly takes ill. ven when the issue doesn't involve potential death or serious injury, sick children need attention, and usually that falls to the mother (although Cohen recognizes this as a problem for working-class fathers as well). Ideally, businesses would have plenty of spare capacity with which to absorb an infrequent absence, late arrival, or early departure, but in today's business climate, it's impossible. Employees who have these issues on a frequent basis risk losing their jobs.

While this is a real problem for some employees and employers, Marcus' proposed solution will not resolve them. She wants the government to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover spot absences and short shifts instead of the longer-range leaves it requires employers to give. That, unfortunately, will not work, primarily because it forces employers to abandon any reasonable expectation of attendance. For most companies, especially publicly-traded firms, each department has an approved head count with a budget for salaries. Employers calculate the salary budgets based on necessary labor and account for vacation, personal days, and sick leave, the latter by considering the attendance policy of the company.

Excessive absences either mean that work does not get peformed or more resources must be applied to meet production expectations. In the example she uses, a school bus driver who keeps showing up late for any reason will eventually force the school to hire an extra driver in order to make sure the children get to school on time for their classes (and that they're not forced to wait at bus stops for too long, a potential security risk). Flex scheduling can help mitigate this, but in the end the budgeted resources have to cover the production expectations -- and when more resources are required, then stock values drop and new management gets hired to address the root causes.

Another problem that arises from this approach is the fairness issue. It is forbidden to discriminate in the workplace based on family composition. How, then, does one create a two-tiered attendance policy, one for parents and one for non-parents, that works fairly for all employees? It's impossible. It creates an inequality that is just as unfair as if employers promoted people without children in order to avoid the complications they bring to the workforce. If a manager terminates an employee who has no children for having five unexcused absences while employees with children have significantly more missing days and receive no disciplinary action, that system is unfair to single employees with no children.

However, in practice, most employers and employees do reach accommodations on these issues. If an employee has an otherwise acceptable attendance record but has had a couple of spot issues, few employers would create problems for that employee. In today's labor market, hanging on to trained employees is enough of a challenge without creating artificial turnover. Employers spend a lot of money making their workplace more attractive and flexible to lower turnover rates; they do not look to chase them out the door.

In fact, one item about Cohen's article struck me as key. Ms. Williams relied on union arbitrations to develop her argument. In organized labor forces, this dynamic becomes much more understandable. Employers with union workforces do not have the luxury of treating individual employees uniquely based on personal situations. Their hiring and termination practices are fixed by contract. If an employer declines to pursue disciplinary action for absenteeism on one employee, regardless of mitigating circumstances, it will impact their ability to discipline all of their employees for attendance problems. The problem in the sample that Williams uses for her thesis is the inflexibility of the union structure, not necessarily the employer.

So what are parents to do? The simple answer would be to recast their expectations of work and salary. They should pursue opportunities for flex shifts or, where both spouses work, that their schedules allow for one parent to always be available for the children. Night shifts exist in many industries, and sometimes pay better as companies will often give a bonus for non-daytime hours. Outside intervention in the workplace only exacerbates the problem, as with union contracting, and leads to more inflexibility rather than relieving it.

UPDATE: I'm embarrassed; I got Ruth Marcus' name incorrect. I called her Ruth Cohen. Ruth sent me a kind note reminding me of what I should have gleaned from the article itself. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 14, 2006 12:38 PM

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