Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Women's Stake in Fighting Arizona's New Law

As the sheriff’s truck followed our van several blocks through Phoenix, I kept thinking what the sight of that vehicle would mean for Silvia or Esperanza or Alejandra or the other women we’d met: Visions of being yanked out of the van and ordered to produce papers. Picturing kids arriving to an empty house. Wondering whether the sheriff would drag you by the hair or slam you against a wall. Having no idea how long you’d be detained, or whether you’d be expelled from the place your ancestors called home. Agonizing whether an older child might have to drop out of school to get a job or care for younger siblings.

As the truck pulled alongside us, I understood why the women would never call on officers like this to report a rape or domestic abuse or any other crime – because laws like SB 1070 had turned the word “illegal” on its head.

The officer paid attention to us because our delegation had stopped to view Tent City, the place where Sheriff Joe Arpaio – the Bull Conner of the immigration fight -- dresses detainees in pink underwear and deposits them in tents regardless of intense heat or bitter cold. We were a dozen women--feminist and labor activists, organizers of domestic workers and day laborers and undocumented students. We’d come to Arizona on Mother’s Day to bear witness to the impact of measures like SB 1070 on women and children.

What we found were stories of worse-than-expected horror and can-you-believe-it resistance. We saw the female face of attacks on migratory families and understood that women are being criminalized simply for doing what mothers are supposed to do, care for and support their families. So much for the rhetoric of the right wing – here motherhood is American only if the mother appears to be Anglo.

We met young children who described families ripped apart by Arpaio’s raids and the toll it took on them. Although they sobbed while telling us their stories, girls like Catherine were clear on their advice to other mothers and children: “Luchan! Fight back!”

Alejandra had her jaw broken when she was arrested. She received no medical attention during three months detention, despite repeated requests. “I don’t understand how it’s possible that people can live peacefully with this and ignore the screams of so many children separated from their parents,” she said.

But like the other women we met, Alejandra’s intention was not to hide, but to resist. She reminded us that the women we talked to wanted to “wake up a giant. I think they did.”

The women welcomed the involvement of multi-racial women’s groups. “It’s not about speaking Spanish or being brown,” Esperanza told us. “We know that if we’re all united, we can go forward. All these sad stories, they don’t push us back –they give us strength, the power to be able to change this.”

We heard the same kind of defiance from Silvia, a young poet accepted into a masters’ program in creative arts at Harvard. A group of benefactors offered to pay the costs, since like other undocumented students, she’s ineligible for student loans. But the offer may be rescinded because SB 1070 threatens those who aid undocumented individuals. In a poem called “Decriminalize,” Silvia insisted “we will not give up.”

because when the Dream Act passes, and believe me, you will see…

My dreams will reach reality.

And you WILL remember this poem,

You will remember me.

I will remember Silvia and the others who asked us to be a “microphone” for their voices. In response, our delegation wrote a petition for women’s groups to sign with three points: that leaders of the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues hold a hearing in Washington, DC for women from Arizona; that First Lady Michelle Obama commit to meet with them; and that President Obama stop this insanity by terminating the 287(g) agreements, which involve local police in immigration enforcement.

I’ll especially remember Catherine, who organizers say was the first to talk about the President’s power to end the brutality. “He has two daughters,” she said. “Maybe one of them is my age. I don’t want Sheriff Arpaio hurting other people or my parents again.”

This piece was first printed as an Exclusive by the Women's Media Center.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Daylight Lessons From Letterman's Late-Night Escapades

I don’t know David Letterman or any of the staffers he had sex with.

I believe fidelity is the business of only one person, the philanderer’s partner.

Extortionists aren’t whistle-blowers—they’re criminals, and should be put away.

But whenever I hear the justification, “I didn’t violate company policy and no one complained,” my hackles jump up.

Let’s talk about why it’s bad business for the boss to sleep with subordinates.

The key part of consent is that the right to say “yes” is balanced by the right to say “no.” When the person doing the asking is the boss, declining becomes dicey.

Even if there’s no threat or demand involved, how do you know there won’t be repercussions for refusing to go along?

If there’s a problem, whom do you tell? Especially when company policy is silent on the matter, how do you know anyone will listen? Who isn’t beholden to the boss for their job?

Suppose later you need a reference from that person. What assurance do you have that your refusal to play around won’t lead to a negative comment, or a deadly neutral one: “Yes, she worked here.”

The problem is exacerbated when the boss is well-known. Maybe an assistant really digs the head honcho. She might take the initiative to get something going or be flattered that he has shown interest in her.

But the bloom can fall off that rose. What happens tomorrow or next week when she decides she’s changed her mind? Or he starts looking at the next or younger intern and wants to move on and move her out?

And what about the rest of the staff who aren’t sleeping with the boss? If someone who’s known to have done so (and sooner or later, everyone will know) goes on to be promoted, the perception will be that sex was the reason—even if that person is the smartest, most talented person onboard.

The result isn’t hard to predict: resentment, lower morale, conflict, and when opportunities arise, people jumping ship.

Sexual favoritism is a form of sexual harassment. Those who aren’t in a romantic relationship may well feel disadvantaged by that fact. The company opens itself to legal liability.

CBS says Letterman wasn’t their employee. But companies have an affirmative duty to protect workers from third party harassment—especially in cases like this when the third party holds so much power at the workplace.

My concern is that corporate execs will learn the wrong lessons from this case.

They’ll review the company sexual harassment policy to make sure it’s silent on supervisors sleeping around unless there’s egregious retaliation. They’ll remind themselves to call the bluff of anyone who threatens to reveal misdeeds.

And there’ll be a huge run on personal recording devices.

So this is an appeal to human resource professionals and boards of directors to draw the right conclusions from the Letterman experience.

First, make sure there is a written sexual harassment policy and that all employees, senior management included, are trained about that policy and their rights and responsibilities under it. Make sure the policy spells out clearly that senior managers (no matter who signs their paycheck) may not have romantic entanglements with any subordinate. If he or she does, the relationship must be disclosed immediately so management can see whether there’s a disinterested outside party who can take over supervision of the lower level individual. If not, the relationship should end or one of the individuals should leave.

Second, firms—including media outlets—should have an arrangement with an independent, outside counsel with no ties to the organization. That counsel’s number should be made available to all employees with instructions to call with impunity in the event that a top-level staff behaves inappropriately, whether to them or someone else. Employees should be assured that such a call will be held in strictest confidence until the matter can be properly—and promptly—investigated.

As for Letterman and anyone else in his position, here’s some advice: If nightly adoration and huge paychecks aren’t enough for you, try sweat yoga or cold showers.

Ask yourself if you were just Joe Schmo and not in a position of power, would this woman be interested in you?

Above all, ask yourself: if the staffer were my daughter, how would I want her boss to behave?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day Realities for U.S. Women

If you listen to the mainstream media, women today have it made! While men have been suffering a “mancession,” women have been taking over as breadwinners. Soon they’ll outnumber men in the workplace – even at the nightly news anchor desks!

You can just hear the experts erasing that pesky gender problem from their lists.

Too bad pesky reality keeps getting in the way.

Consider these tidbits:

Yes, more men than women have been laid off in this recession. But single mothers face an unemployment rate twice as high as married men (http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS189915+04-Sep-2009+BW20090904).

The jobs women dominate tend to be low-wage and lacking in benefits.

Women overall may have experienced fewer job cuts, but they’re disproportionately affected by cuts in hours.

Women working full-time, year-round still bring home only 78 percent of what men earn.

Oh, and those top jobs? Women are a whopping 2.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 6 percent of top earners, 17 percent of Congress. Women of color barely show up in these lists.

As for the media, women hold only 3 percent of the “clout” jobs (http://www.womensmediacenter.com/research.html). White men in that field are paid 29 percent more than white women and 46 percent more than women of color.

Yes, women aim for full equality, but not by virtue of lost jobs or pay among men -- most of whom, after all, have wives or daughters who are affected by those losses.

As the protagonist in the movie “Salt of the Earth” put it nearly six decades ago, “Women want to rise up, and bring everyone up with us.”

Friday, August 14, 2009

Honoring Evelyn Coke

For more than three decades, Evelyn Coke took care of elderly and disabled patients at homes throughout New York City. She got folks in and out of chairs and tubs, kept them fed and clean and comfortable. She made sure they had their medications. For many she was a lifeline to the outside world.

Yet because she did for a living what women do for free in the home, Evelyn Coke’s work was always under-valued. For 40 hours of work every week, she was poorly paid. And for the many hours she worked beyond that, she wasn’t paid at all. No laws were violated in the process.

Coke, a Jamaican immigrant and mother of five, was one of more than a million home care workers excluded from protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Seventy years ago, when the legislation was passed, Congress agreed to omit agricultural, domestic and personal care workers. They were, then as now, predominantly female and people of color.

In 1974, Congress amended the law to include some of those workers. But it explicitly kept out those it designated as babysitters and “companions.”

Evelyn Coke reminds me of Mildred, the domestic worker protagonist in Alice Childress’s “Like One of the Family.” Like Mildred, Evelyn clearly valued her work and thought the world couldn’t function without it. She just wanted to be treated fairly – decent wages, a workplace that was clean and safe, time for rest and enjoyment.

So Evelyn decided to sue the home care agency for the overtime she’d been denied. Later the Service Employees International Union represented her. The issue was simple justice.

Her case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the issue there was not justice but power: Did the Department of Labor have the authority to decide whether to cover home care workers? All nine justices agreed they did.

Unlike Lilly Ledbetter’s case, this one did not rally most women’s groups. The bill named after her did not garner huge attention in Congress or the media. Evelyn Coke did not campaign at the side of Barack Obama; by then she was in a wheelchair as the result of a car accident. And she will not be able to celebrate a victory that may come with this new administration. She died in early August. According to her son, a serious bedsore – the kind her skills had treated for so many others -- hastened her death.

Evelyn Coke made a difference in the lives of many patients. And her courageous stand will make a difference for all caregivers. In June Sen. Tom Harkin, who introduced a bill in 2007 to reverse the DOL’s rules, sent a letter signed by 14 other senators and 37 Congressional reps asking Secretary Hilda Solis to end the labor law’s exclusion of home care workers.

"Home care, increasingly, has become not casual work performed by a friend or family member but a full-time regular type of employment," they wrote. "It is critical that these professional workers, who provide essential services to our nation's elderly and disabled, have the same right to minimum wage and overtime pay as enjoyed by other workers... [A]s our population ages, the demand will only increase. Yet, there is already a shortage of qualified home care workers and there is a high turnover in the field."

I met Secretary Solis several months ago and we talked about Evelyn Coke. “That’s just the kind of worker I want the Department of Labor to speak for,” she told me. In response to the Harkin letter, she has said that she intends to “fulfill the department’s mandate to protect America’s workers, including home health care aides, who work demanding schedules and receive low wages.”

Opponents argue that fulfilling that mandate would cost too much. The agency that employed Evelyn Coke said paying workers overtime would cause “tremendous and unsustainable losses.” New York City authorities filed a friend-of-the court brief, arguing worker protections would force more people into institutions, and would increase Medicaid costs by $250 million a year.

Justice for the Evelyn Cokes of this world will have a price tag. But the cost of injustice – poverty for full-time caregivers in one of the fastest growing fields of employment, the impact of high turnover on patient care -- is much higher.

For now, this household aide needs to become a household name. Let us honor Evelyn Coke posthumously as she should have been honored every day in her work.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Learning from Lilly Ledbetter

I asked a college class how many had heard of Joe the Plumber. Everyone raised their hands. Lilly Ledbetter? Not one hand went up.

In December I had the honor of sitting next to Lilly Ledbetter, plaintiff in a high-profile pay discrimination suit. We were both on a panel on fair pay the next morning at Hunter College. Here’s what I learned:
• She’s a person of strong faith, including faith in justice.
• Her husband grappled with four bouts of cancer (he has since passed away). He had to miss oral arguments in the Supreme Court because of radiation treatment.
• Lilly doesn’t mind saying that she’s 70 years old, that she was never in this for the money, that she thinks Rep. George Miller, a sponsor of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, is Hollywood handsome.
• She understands that unequal pay hurts not just women and people of color, but families and communities.
• She’s button-bursting proud of her four grandchildren and two children, especially her daughter who’s in HR at Blue Cross/Blue Shield and focuses only on positives when doing performance evaluations.
• For 19 years, Lilly Ledbetter got excellent evaluations managing a line on the night shift at Goodyear Tire Company in Birmingham, Alabama. She has no idea who slipped her a note informing her that for 17 of those years, she was paid much less than the other managers who were male (15-20% less than most, 40% less than some). There were two likely informants, men who’d mentored her, but one was in Texas and the other was dead. After Lilly got over the humiliation – “like you’ve fallen in a crowded room and you look to see who noticed,” she said – she decided she had to fight, even though she knew it would take years. Her motive was simple: As a government contractor, Goodyear knew the law. She wanted them to obey it.
• Just as she’d hoped, other women and an African-American man at Goodyear have received substantial raises because of her action. Recently forty executives from big name companies got on the phone with Lilly to ask her advice on ensuring fair pay in their companies.
• She loves talking to groups, especially young women, and hopes someone in Hollywood makes a film about her so others can learn from her story. (Some have suggested Glenn Close or Meryl Streep for the role. I told Lilly I’d like to see Sissy Spacek -- she’s got that southern accent and quiet grit.)

Other facts I already knew. Lilly had gone to the EEOC, who said hers was one of the worse cases they’d ever seen. She found a great lawyer and got support from women’s groups. The company appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where five of nine justices (surely they’ve lost the right to that name) decided that victims of discrimination must file a charge within 180 days of the first instance of discriminatory pay -- never mind that the company had prohibited employees from discussing salaries. I knew that members of Congress immediately introduced legislation to fix this. George Bush threatened to veto the measure, which was passed in the House, held up in the Senate. John McCain said he opposed it as a boondoggle for lawyers; Barack Obama said he’d be proud to make it one of the first bills he signs – and now he’s done just that.

Here’s what else I know: Passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act is a grand win, but only one small step toward fair pay. The EEOC will need adequate funding to enforce existing equal pay laws. And these laws address only part of the problem: treating women differently when they perform the same jobs as men. Most women and men don’t do the same jobs – and women’s jobs pay less just because women do them.

We need to revalue women’s work, remove the legacy of discrimination embedded in the market rate of those jobs. We need to end the motherhood penalty, so that no one is discriminated against because of caregiving responsibilities. Only when we have new rules that value families at work – policies like paid sick days and affordable family leave accessible to all – will we establish a framework for women to reach equity in employment, and men to reach equity in the home.

Thanks to Lilly Ledbetter and other women like her who found their voice and inspire the nation, we’re a lot closer to moving that agenda. We’ll know we’ve made it when the media pay as much attention to Lilly as they did to Joe the plumber.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sarah Palin is No Feminist

I’ve just learned that the attempted makeover of Gov. Sarah Palin included more than designer clothes and cosmetic artists. It seems the McCain campaign also hired a former editor of Ms. Magazine to polish Palin’s image as a feminist.

The result? Kind of like putting George W. Bush in drag. He might look a lot better, but he’d be no less dangerous.

In fact, layering feminist language on an anti-feminist platform is even worse, because the disguise is less visible and designed to deceive.

Gov. Palin’s candidacy does have some plus sides for feminists. It reminds us that fathers can care for kids, that a mother of a baby can run for high office, that it’s okay for a woman to have a more powerful job than her husband, that women can be feisty and stand up for themselves.

But the negatives, alas, far outweigh these factors.

The central problem is, people can’t claim to promote equality if they don’t recognize inequality – right here in the United States of America, not just somewhere overseas. Gov. Palin has declared on numerous occasions that since Title IX, women in our country can walk through any door. This dovetails nicely with the Big Boys’ claim that women can do whatever they want – if few are in high-paid jobs, must be because women choose not to be there.

The inconvenient truth is that doors slam in women’s faces every day – doors that say “exit” because you got pregnant or cared for a sick family member or needed time to go to your child’s school. Doors that say “unwelcome” because the boss can’t keep his hands off you or because you and your co-workers tried to organize a union or because the person you love happens to be of the same gender. Doors that say “unworthy” because the work you do is associated with women and therefore deemed less valuable.

Gov. Palin not only ignores these slammed doors, she opposes any effort to open them.

She says she wants equal pay, yet rejects a simple measure, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, that would help stop violations of the law by counting every instance of unequal pay as discrimination – not just the first one you had no way of knowing about at the time.

The vice-presidential candidate says she supports child care – but the ticket opposes expanding Head Start, child care assistance for women leaving welfare, or after-school programs. Her running mate voted not to provide health insurance to additional needy kids.

In speeches, Palin says she’ll advocate for working mothers, at the same time she declares her opposition to modest standards such as paid sick days or making family leave more accessible and affordable. The one change she supports is substituting comp time for overtime – thereby making overtime cheaper and more plentiful. Workers would be able to spend more time with their families only after being forced to spend time away from their families; they’d be allowed to take time only when the employer deemed it convenient.

Special needs kids would be a priority for Gov. Palin. Unfortunately, her main proposal is more taxpayer money for private school vouchers, a program that has proven to be stunningly unaccountable and supports schools that exclude most special needs kids. In Milwaukee, voucher programs that do make room for such kids rely on public schools to provide the services.

And let’s not forget that Sarah Palin would deny women the right to make the most personal decisions about their own bodies, even when they’d been desecrated by rape or incest. In the upside-down logic of extremists, she would also deny young people access to comprehensive sex education that might prevent unwanted pregnancies. If Palin didn’t put in the order for women in Wasilla to pay for their own rape kits, she clearly never stopped it.

The list goes on – against the bill that would remove barriers to organizing labor unions, support for a constitutional amendment to intensify barriers for same-sex unions.

I don’t care what language Sarah Palin uses, anymore than I care what brand eyeglasses she wears. As our mothers used to say, it’s what inside that counts. In Palin’s case, that amounts to policies that are bad for women, their families, this nation.

A Rescue Package for Working Families

Wall Street tycoons behave irresponsibly, bring the country to financial brink, hold out their hands for an eleven-figure bailout – and lobbyists applaud that as a rescue.

Women achieve daily miracles fulfilling responsibilities to their employers and their families, ask for modest protections so they won’t be fired for having a sick kid – and lobbyists denounce that as mandates.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Not so long ago, we were surrounded by ashtrays and smokers wherever we worked, ate or traveled. Babies sat on our laps in the car. Most paints were lead-based.

In each case, public health experts alerted us to the dangers. Values shifted; what once seemed normal no longer met the test of public acceptability. Groups of concerned citizens petitioned government representatives to do their job and set new standards.

Action on these items was nothing unusual. From child labor to Jim Crow to excluding those with a disability, our government has stepped in to end long-time practices. Each time they did so because popular sentiment said, “Enough.”

Once again, there is a need for the government to protect its citizens. This time it’s to make sure that workers are not penalized for being good parents.

We have a giant disconnect between what family members need and what the workplace provides.

It flies in the face of our values, and hurts our families and businesses, when workers can’t afford to take time to care for a new baby or a seriously ill family member. And it jeopardizes us all when people are compelled to go to work and cook our food or care for our children when they themselves are sick.

Each time we try to advance, opponents rise up to tell us the sky will fall, business will flee. Consider this statement:

“[This bill] would create chaos in business never yet known to us… Let me make clear that I am not opposed to the [goals of reform]… What I do take exception to is any approach … which is utterly impractical and in operation would be much more destructive than constructive to the very purposes it is designed to serve.”

That’s Ohio Congressman Arthur Lamneck, arguing in 1937 against proposed rules outlawing child labor and establishing a minimum wage. More than seventy years later, these standards clearly aren’t what threatens the American economy.

But lack of minimum standards really is harming American families.

I’ve been thinking a lot about parents I know of three lovely children. Let’s call them Scott and Kate. After Scott’s job was outsourced to Taiwan, the couple lost their home. Since then, Scott got another job. Recently, they learned their daughter has cancer. Both parents have family leave and understanding employers. The problem is, the leave is unpaid. They don’t know how they can make ends meet with the double whammy of losing income while on leave and having to cough up the 20% health insurance co-pay.

There are many heartbreaking parts of this story. But what hit me the hardest was when Kate said, “I feel like I failed my family.”

Kate and Scott have done nothing but work hard and take good care of their children. That should be enough. The failure here is a government refusing to bring the workplace into sync with 21st century realities.

Providing incentives to employers who move jobs overseas rather than those who grow them here – that’s the failure.

Allowing health care providers and insurers to jack up prices without regard for the impact on workers and their families, or on employers struggling to keep their heads above water – that’s the failure.

Opposing legislation that would bar employers from firing a worker who needs to take a day off to care for a sick child or parent – that’s the failure. So is blocking progress on bills that would provide income for workers during family leave.

And even worse, telling workers these are personal problems they have to work out on their own—that’s an outrage.

The current bailout of irresponsible financial actors makes one thing crystal clear: those who demand smaller government are quite happy to have government intervention in their own behalf.

This election and thereafter, it’s high time we demand government do its job: set and enforce rules that benefit not just the rich and powerful, but the vast majority of American workers and their families.