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Family-Leave Values

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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The New York Times has an excellent article in today’s paper, written by Eyal Press, dealing with a new perspective on “family values”: the importance of employees with family responsibilities to have flexibility, including leave, from their employers, and lawsuits that are seeking to enforce this flexibility using a variety of legal approaches:

Since the mid-1990s, the number of workers who have sued their employers for supposed mistreatment on account of family responsibilities–becoming pregnant, needing to care for a sick child or relative–has increased by more than 300 percent. More than 1,150 such lawsuits have been filed in federal and state courts, a trend that has not gone unnoticed in the business world, not only because companies are well aware of the negative publicity lawsuits can generate but also because numerous plaintiffs have walked away with hefty damage awards. In one case, a jury granted $11.65 million to a hospital maintenance worker who was penalized for having to care for his elderly parents. In Ohio recently, a jury awarded $2.1 million to an assistant store manager who was demoted because she has several kids.

Press suggests that this indicates that so-called “family values” issues have moved beyond the old conservative battle cries of “gay marriage and abortion”:

Beyond causing headaches for their employers, the lawsuits are serving notice that the battle over “family values” is no longer just about gay marriage and abortion: it’s also about workplace attitudes that some advocates believe do significantly more to undermine family life than those controversial practices do.

Of course, an effective solution from the employer and employee perspective is to pro-actively deal with these issues, and step away from the control obsession so many employers feel. The benefits often extend well beyond avoiding lawsuits:

Some C.E.O.’s, however, have begun rewriting the rules on their own, spurred by the need to compete for high-quality employees. Several years ago, a businessman named Jim Johnson dropped in on a talk Joan Williams was giving in Denver, because his wife had heard about Williams and urged him to go. Afterward, he decided to reorganize the moving-and-storage company he runs. Today, many of Johnson’s employees log more hours at home than at the office. “I’ve got customer-service people working at home, order-entry people, long-distance dispatchers,” he told me. There has been a slight increase in productivity, he said, as well as another benefit: “This flex-hour, work-at-home group–the turnover has been almost nonexistent.”

Press also points out how, on this issue (as on a number of quality-of-life issues), the United States lags the rest of the developed world:

Indeed, in the United States today, working parents receive supports and benefits that in much of the developed world would be considered scandalously ungenerous. Some unflattering comparisons with Europe were drawn at the E.E.O.C. hearing in April, where Williams suggested that even companies had reached the point of wanting more guidance from Washington about how caregivers should be treated. The message was evidently heard. In late May, the agency issued enforcement guidelines that for the first time spell out the myriad situations — a police detective removed from high-profile investigations after she adopts a child, a technician and father denied a part-time posting reserved for a woman — prohibited under existing law. The E.E.O.C. makes clear that personnel decisions implemented on the basis of stereotypical assumptions are unacceptable and urges employers “to make it easier for all workers, whether male or female, to balance work and personal responsibilities.”

Lawsuits are, perhaps, an unfortunate way to get there. Actually ending up in court is painful for all involved, benefiting perhaps only the pocketbooks of the attorneys. But sometimes, as with segregation and racial discrimination, lawsuits are the only way to force society to change:

It would be hard to imagine such a step happening were it not for the wave of lawsuits in recent years. Meanwhile, people like Karen Deonarain are waiting for their days in court. It has been more than three years since she lost her job. Her lawsuit, which charges that she was fired for complications related to her pregnancy, amounting to a form of sex discrimination, is in the discovery phase. A hint of weariness creeps into her voice when she talks about the case. “I think they want to drag it out so I’ll go away,” she told me, laughing softly.

From a personal perspective, I’d like to point out too that this does not simple effect mothers, or fathers, but anyone who may wish to care for a sick relative, deal with their own health issues, or simply maintain a healthy life beyond the workplace. For this reason, I think “work-life” issues are absolutely critical for the American workplace to confront and deal with if we wish to maintain productivity and effectiveness. We cannot simply squeeze more work out of employees indefinitely. We need to work, as the old adage goes, “smarter, not harder.” And balancing work and life is a key part of this.

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