One Sick Child Away: When "Opting Out" is Not an Option

May 26, 2006

To tag team with Elisa’s blog on the Motherhood Manifesto, I’d like to point to a recent study out of UC Hastings College of the Law, One Sick Child Away: When “Opting Out” is Not an Option.

The report, authored by Joan Williams, distinguished professor and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law reaches the following conclusion: while MSM discussion of families centers on the choices professionals make, the work/family dilemma of working class/hourly wage earners make professionals’ sturm und angst look like a picnic.

The media tends to cover work/family conflict as the story of professional mothers “opting out” of fast-track careers. Surveys confirm that working class Americans feel
work/family conflict acutely: two-thirds of unionized fathers said they were unhappy with the amount of time they dedicated to their children; half of the mothers agreed.
The arbitrations communicate the stories of Americans  caught between inflexible jobs, lack of resources, and their commitment to do right by their families.

The study reaches five main conclusions:

1.) Working class families face inflexible schedules that clash with family needs.

2.) Mandatory overtime leaves single mothers, divorced dads, and tag team families in jeopardy of losing their jobs.

3.) Working class men often are unable or unwilling to bring up their family needs with their employers. Instead, they suffer in silence or to try to “come in under the
radar screen” – with unhappy results.

4.) Many workers are one sick child away from being fired. Work/family issues are core union issues: empowering workers to organize or exercise their rights requires unions to protect their members from the work/family conflicts they will inevitably face.

5.) Employers’ inflexibility may well defeat their own business needs.

Much like the Motherhood Manifesto, this study is studded with compelling, heartbreaking anecdotal evidence to support the number crunching. Most of the analysis comes from arbitration cases – ie, cases in which unions went to bat for their members. The report notes that in the US, 92% percent of hourly/non-professional workers are not unionized, meaning they have no right of appeal.

I took several things from this study. One, the fact is that a lot of employers in the non-professional/hourly industries are not doing their legal duties in providing for mandatory family leave (and can we all give a big smoochy kiss to Clinton and Gore for having done that minimum bit?). They’re getting away with illegal activity, and families are suffering. Secondly, if I ever doubted that unions aren’t an essential part of protecting workers, I never will again. Williams notes:

The workers discussed in this report have far more protection than the average Joe: not only were they unionized, but their unions chose to grieve their discipline. Most workers have far fewer protections, given that most disputes are settled informally, most arbitrations are never published, and most workplaces are not unionized. We could expect the consequences of work/family conflict to be more severe in non-unionized
workplaces where workers typically have fewer rights.
In short, these arbitrations skirt the surface of a larger sea of pain. This is the new face of work/family conflict, one that is not captured by uplifting stories of professional mothers opting out.