Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Clarence Thomas Tries to Rewrite History

Old argument against Anita Hill: “a little nutty and a little slutty.”

New argument against Anita Hill: a real ball-breaker – no one dared mess with her.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Clarence Thomas has settled on this tack. Much easier to turn the tables on his accuser than to defend himself. Anita Hill couldn’t have been offended by his behavior when she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, says Thomas, because had she been, watch out!

“She did not take slights very lightly,” Justice Thomas told 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft. “Anyone who did anything, she responded very quickly.”

Trouble is, back in 1981, there wasn’t much that Anita Hill or anyone else could have done about sexual harassment – treatment much more injurious than “slights.” Even today, 16 years after the infamous hearings and 26 years after the alleged misconduct, barriers remain for those who experience sexually offensive behavior at work.

The EEOC did not even draft a definition of sexual harassment until 1980, and for the first few years, the agency declined to hear cases based on one person’s word against another. A complainant had to have some corroboration in order to merit an investigation.

Had Anita Hill filed a complaint at the time, the intake staff would have turned her away. She, like most who describe sexual harassment, had neither witness nor evidence. Only in 1983 – two years after the alleged harassment – did the EEOC conclude that most sexual harassment cases involved conflicting stories. The agency finally began to hear such cases, relying on factors such as credibility, consistency, and detail to determine who was telling the truth.

Thanks to Professor Hill and others who broke the silence, we’ve made progress. Yet the majority of those experiencing harassment today still do not report it.

Why? Go back to those Senate proceedings, to the moment when Charles Kothe, dean of Oral Roberts University, was asked why he’d hired Anita Hill. Dean Kothe declared he’d supported her hiring after seeing the glowing recommendation from Clarence Thomas.

No one asked the obvious follow-up question: What if there’d been no recommendation? Would Kothe have even considered her for the job?

A powerful figure can impact your career for decades after you move on. The boss needn’t trash you. The absence of a favorable recommendation alone speaks volumes.

Fear of retaliation is just one of many reasons confident, tough women sit on their humiliation and rage and misery. They need the money, they like the work, they don’t know who to tell, they don’t think they’ll be believed – the list goes on.

In his book, Thomas ignores the fact that evidence about him emerged since the hearing – as Anita Hill recently pointed out, it’s no longer her word against his. Similarly, his claim of being the victim of a high-tech lynching leaves out a key reality: the woman involved is not white but African-American, a group of women raped at will under slavery and sexually vulnerable ever since.

If Clarence Thomas wants to rewrite history, the place to begin is with sexual harassment laws. We need to strengthen protections against retaliation. Employers should be required to have policies and post them, and to arrange awareness training for employees. Organizations need to establish an independent, outside investigation process when the accused is a high-level executive. Just as important, we need to change corporate culture to reward, rather than punish, those who stand up for decent treatment for themselves and others.

What we don’t need is to trivialize harassment or blame those who suffer it for failing to make it stop.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

It's Time to Value Families at Work

What do you do when school says you must show up to register your kids, and work says you must stay overtime for an extra shift?

If you’re like Vickie Underwood, in DeKalb County, Georgia, you choose your kids.

Underwood told her boss she was sorry but, unlike all the other times she did stay overtime, she couldn’t that day. She figured two decades with an unblemished work record would show her commitment to the job.

Her boss disagreed. Underwood was fired for violating the mandatory overtime policy.

We hear a lot of talk about freedoms in the U.S. Apparently the freedom to refuse mandatory overtime isn’t one of them.

Neither is the freedom to care for a sick family member. Just ask Monique Evans. When she called her supervisor at a Wendy’s in Portland, Maine, to explain that her two-year-old had the flu, the supervisor told her to come in anyway. When Evans refused, the supervisor cut her hours from 40 per week to 15 and demoted her to mopping floors and cleaning toilets.

This is the time of year when schools require children to be vaccinated. Keeping kids free of preventable diseases boosts learning and general child well-being.

But many parents – most of them low wage workers who can’t afford to risk their jobs -- can’t take the day off to get the children immunized.

The truth is, for millions of workers in this country, being a good family member can mean risking job, paycheck, or peace of mind. And being a responsible employee can put your family or relationship at risk.

Vickie Underwood and Monique Evans are among the many whose stories are told in a new report entitled, “Family Values at Work: It’s About Time! Why We Need Minimum Standards to Ensure a Family-Friendly Workplace.” The report was published by a network of state coalitions known as the MultiState Working Families Consortium.

With photos and stories, this report puts faces to the statistics, detailing what it means when family values end at the workplace door. It also summarizes mounds of research that tell us that policies like paid sick days and family leave insurance aren’t just the moral thing to do, aren’t just good for workers and their families – they’re good for business and taxpayers as well.

Consider this factoid, for instance: Replacing a salaried worker costs on average one and a half times more than the fired worker was earning annually. What about someone making $8 an hour? Even these low-wage workers cost an employer an average of $5,506 apiece to replace.

Political candidates, pay attention. “Family Values at Work” describes the growing movement to win time to care, and announces new polling data showing that voters want such policies. Nearly nine in ten voters support paid sick days – and that’s across demographics and party lines. Similarly, more than three in four support family leave insurance plans.

Most important, this document makes the case for government action as the only way to protect workers like Vickie and Monique. The right-wing keeps trying to tell us that our problem is big government. But “Family Values at Work” reminds us that a proper role of government is creating minimum standards for how we conduct ourselves as a nation.

Every so often, we say, enough – something we put up with for a long time, like slavery or child labor or discrimination against racial groups or women, suddenly seems barbaric.

It’s about time we said that about forcing people like Vickie Underwood and Monique Evans to risk their loved ones or their livelihoods.

You can read “Family Values at Work” on 9to5’s website, www.9to5.org.

Friday, August 31, 2007

On Labor Day: How the U.S. Stacks Up for Those in Labor

Recently I gave a talk in Calgary, Canada for representatives of credit unions from around the world. The woman who introduced me, a director of marketing, was Canadian. “I just got back from maternity leave,” she told me, raving about her first child.

I know that Canadian law allows for nearly a year of leave at 55 percent pay. “How long did you take?” I asked.

“Oh, the whole year,” she replied. I mentioned that the Family and Medical Leave Act in the U.S. provides for considerably less time, 12 weeks, and that the time is unpaid. (I didn’t mention that it covers only half the workforce.) The vast majority of new mothers in the U.S. are back at work before 12 weeks. More than half of them get no pay at all.

Could she imagine having returned that soon, I asked. She worked her jaw for a few minutes without speaking. “I just couldn’t have done it,” she said finally. I felt as if I’d asked her to imagine feeding her child weeds.

Our interaction reminded me of that scene in Michael Moore’s film “Sicko” when he asks the Americans living in France how many sick days they received. “If you’re sick, you stay home,” one of them told him. “Yeah, but how many days do you get?” The answer: as long as you’re sick.

Hard to imagine for those living in the U.S., where no state or federal law requires any paid sick days at all – and where half the workforce has none. Seven out of ten workers in the U.S. have no paid sick time to care for a sick family member.

The next time you hear some lobbyist argue that our lack of standards is about economic competitiveness, remember this fact: Of the 20 most competitive nations in the world, the U.S. is the ONLY ONE which does not guarantee any paid sick days. Eighteen of those 20 countries guarantee at least 31 days of paid sick time.

Three decades years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, a friend in France wrote me to say how sorry she felt that I had to have my baby in the United States. She went on to list the standards available to everyone in France – not just paid maternity leave, but high-quality child care available on a sliding scale basis for babies, and pre-school free to every child at age two and a half. Nearly all French parents sent their kids to those pre-schools, even in homes where a parent was available during the day, because the experience was so positive.

At the time I was taken aback by my friend’s letter, a little embarrassed and a little envious. Today, I’m just angry – and determined to see this change before my children have children.

For those who labor and go through labor, or simply need time to care for loved ones of any age, it’s about time we created some new rules in this country – like a minimum number of paid sick days, and insurance programs that provide at least partial wage replacement during family and medical leave. It’s about time we made sure that family values don’t end at the workplace door.

I’d sure like to say to friends in other countries that the U.S. no longer stands alone.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Listen to the Children

Teachers tell researchers they’ve never seen so many children coming to school sick. Guilt-ridden mothers share stories of sending ailing kids to day care or school out of fear that staying home with them would result in discipline on the job.

These stories don’t surprise me. But what was startling was finding out how many kids drag themselves to school sick to keep a parent from losing pay or getting fired.

I first became aware of this three years ago at a 9to5 leadership conference in Washington, D.C. Members were getting ready to tell their elected officials why they need paid sick days – something half the workforce, and three-quarters of low-wage women, do not have. For these workers, staying home to care for one’s own illness or a sick family member could mean not only loss of pay, but loss of a job.

First I stopped by the group from Wisconsin and heard Robbie Bickerstaff describe how her son Eric, then age 7, got hit by a car on the way home from school but chose not to tell her. He was afraid she’d lose her second shift job if she didn’t go in to work. Later an older sibling called to say that Eric was crying because his arm hurt from being hit by the car and she had to take him to the hospital. When Robbie informed her boss, he was adamant: “Leave and you’re fired.” Her pleas didn’t move him. She did leave; she was fired. Eric turned out to have a broken arm.

I moved on to the 9to5 members from Pennsylvania and shared Robbie’s story. Carissa Peppard, the 21-year-old daughter of activist Kiki Peppard, was sitting next to her mom. “I’ve never told my mother this before,” she said, “but when you’re a kid, you know everything. Whenever I was sick, I’d ask myself, ‘Should I tell Mom? Will we have groceries this week if she stays home with me?’ If I could, I just dragged myself to school.”

I related these stories recently at a briefing for Congressional staff organized by 9to5. On the panel with me was Jeannetta Allen, an energetic 18-year-old with a disability that affects her balance and her speech. She’d just testified how lack of paid sick days had cost her mother a job.

“I’m that kid,” Jeannetta said when I’d finished. “After my mother was fired, I always tried to go to school no matter how I felt. I didn’t want her to be fired again.”

A chain reaction started among 9to5 members in the audience. One after another, they told stories of discovering a child was walking around with bruised ribs or the flu or strep throat because staying home meant Mom could lose her job.

“My son had stopped eating,” Christina said. “He thought it would save on groceries.”

Nearly 20 years ago, a Wisconsin coalition brought a group of children to Madison, Wisconsin, to fight for a state family and medical leave bill. They represented the range of reasons children might need a loved one by their side – childhood cancer, being adopted, death of a grandparent, having a sibling with a developmental disability or asthma, being hit by a car. After listening to the kids’ stories, the Secretary of Employment Relations was visibly moved. “You know,” he told them, “we’re so used to dealing with lobbyists, we forget about those who are affected by our legislation.”

Too many elected officials are preaching family values but listening to lobbyists who want those values to end at the workplace door.

It’s time we listened to the children instead.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Comment on Supreme Court Ruling on Pay Discrimination

Checklist for women in a new job: Get clear job description, including pay and benefit package. Learn name of supervisor. Identify closest bathroom. File pay discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Or so a narrow majority of the Supreme Court would have it. In a 5-4 decision, the justices ruled that women who suspect they’re being paid less because of gender have only 180 days to file a complaint from the time the employer first sets the lower pay rate – even if they’re unaware of the problem until much later. In fact, that pay inequity may balloon with each percentage increase. But unless management explicitly says, “Make sure this woman keeps earning less than her male peers,” the growing gap won’t constitute discrimination in the eyes of this court.

Suppose, like most women, you have no idea what others are making. Suppose you’re told, as many are, that discussing salary is a major taboo. You’ve just started your probationary period. You may well be afraid that asking about pay will mark you as a troublemaker. Sorry - if the Supremes have their way, you’re fresh out of luck.

Don’t forget that this ruling applies if the discrimination is based on race, national origin or religion as well as gender. Gotta hand it to those justices – they’re equal opportunity oppressors.

Just like that, the Court wiped out 20 years of precedent about how to view the ongoing consequences of discriminatory action. Over that time period, federal courts and the EEOC have consistently ruled that an act of discrimination occurs each time someone in a protected category receives a lower paycheck than co-workers with similar skills and experience.

That’s what Lilly Ledbetter, the plaintiff in this case, believes happened to her. As a manager at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, Ledbetter started out earning the same as her 16 male colleagues. But for the 19 years of her employment, she kept receiving lower raises than they did – for several years because she refused the advances of a supervisor who told her, “If you meet me at the Ramada Inn, you can be No. 1, and if you don’t, you’re on the bottom.”

By the time the case went to court, the gap was as much as 40 percent. Like most employers, Goodyear didn’t post salaries. Ledbetter didn’t learn about the disparity for a long time. And when she did, she tried to work it out with upper management so she’d be seen as a “team player.”

Justice Samuel Alito’s decision had a lot of legalese in it. But it might as well have said, “Naah-nah-na-naah-nah.” If you didn’t charge discrimination earlier and you don’t have a smoking gun that shows management plotted to lower your pay some time in the last six months, you have no recourse.

Many of us grew up learning that ignorance of the law is no excuse for wrongdoing. Justices Alito and his brethren have turned that on its head: ignorance of wrongdoing will excuse violations of the law.

We know why women earn so much less than men: their employers pay them less. The highest court of the United States of America just made it easier for them to get away with it. Now those we elected to Congress need to follow the urgings of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and fix this mess through legislation.

As for newly hired women, here’s a few more items for that checklist: Find out who the candidates are. Learn their positions on this case. Share the information with everyone you know. Vote.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Getting Ready for My Book Tour

I'm about to set out on my book tour. To me this is a kind of organizing - meeting people who want to take on the big boys, learning about your lives and hopes and victories. I'll share what I learn as I travel and talk to you.
Ellen April 4, 2007