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.