Family and medical leave. Ruth Marcus writes:
The Family as Firing Offense: The school nurse and I are on a first-name basis these days. "Hi, Ruth," she says with a practiced tone, regret blended with calm. "It's Elizabeth" -- and, because she's a pro, immediately, "Not an emergency." And then she relates the ailment du jour -- Julia with suspected strep, again; Emma with a wire poking out of her braces, again. So I sigh, pack up my papers (or, less frequently, call my husband, and he packs up his) and head over to school.
This may sound like it's going to be one of those self-pitying Mother's Day columns. It's not. I've done my fair share of agonizing in print about the implacable tensions between work and family, but I'm moved this Mother's Day to feel rather sheepish about such laments.
The reason for my embarrassment is a report by the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California at Hastings: "One Sick Child Away From Being Fired: When Opting Out is Not an Option." With that stark title, the report punctures the entitled, self-referential perspective from which journalists tend to write about working mothers.
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. A bus driver is fired when she arrives three minutes late because of her son's asthma attack; a packer loses her job for leaving work because her daughter is in the emergency room with a head injury. A police officer is suspended for failing to report for unscheduled duty; she had arranged baby-sitting for her three children for her regular 4 p.m. shift, but couldn't -- without notice -- find baby-sitting for the noon-to-4 slot she'd been ordered to work...