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US Workplaces Are Hostile to Families

Attaining the kind of social and economic stability needed for a child to thrive is increasingly difficult for the working poor.

(Image: Working pregnant via Shutterstock)

Childbearing gets a little more bearable for working women this year, with various new state and city policies to accommodate the needs of pregnant and parenting workers.

In several states, including Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota and West Virginia, and several cities, workers can now request modest adjustments to their jobs due to pregnancy, with greater protection against employment discrimination. Though coverage of the laws may vary according to the size of the firm, these policies generally build on federal anti-discrimination protections by mandating “reasonable” accommodation for pregnancy-related conditions, unless the company can prove that doing so poses “undue hardship.”

Additionally, California and several cities, including New York, have adopted paid sick days policies, enabling workers—particularly single parents struggling in low-wage jobs—to take time off to tend to family medical needs, without sacrificing pay. Nationwide, three states and sixteen cities have passed paid sick days laws. At the same time, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, “nearly four in 10 private sector workers can’t earn paid sick days.”

Broadly speaking, these policies represent a glacial shift in workplace culture from viewing pregnancy and family caregiving as a costly liability, to a recognition that workers need more than a paycheck to support their households over the course of life’s natural progression—progression that’s more open and diverse, but also more unstable, compared to the days of June Cleaver.

Hopefully, the policies will protect workers like Hilda Guzzman, who was forced to stand while working her cashier job at Dollar Tree until the bleeding and pain forced her into the emergency room. Surveys show that pregnant workers often can be accommodated with just minor adjustments, like extra bathroom breaks or time off for a prenatal care doctor’s visit—the biggest barrier seems to be the stubbornness of employers and the stereotypical notion that a pregnant woman is “not fit” for work.

Pregnant worker laws and other family-based labor protections are a baby step toward giving working-class women the kinds of choices that have historically been concentrated among affluent professional women, despite the fact that the poor need these protections more. Andrew Cherlin, a social policy professor at Johns Hopkins University, tells The Nation via e-mail:

Working-class women are less likely to have the kinds of jobs that accommodate to pregnancies and to child care responsibilities. Yet given the declining wages of working-class men, the need for working-class women to work is greater than ever…. But the lack of workplace flexibility that working-class women often face makes it very difficult to combine wage-earning with pregnancy or childcare.

The economic divide in the workplace reflects the trend Cherlin explores in his recent book Labor’s Love Lost. Tracking the decline in marriage rates in the postwar era, Cherlin argues that structural economic shifts have undermined “traditional” working-class family structures, while at the same time punishing families for not conforming to an obsolete stereotype of a nuclear family.

Over the past half-century, women entered the workforce as educational and economic opportunities expanded (especially for middle-class white women). At the same time, thanks to modern technology and cultural trends, Cherlin writes, “the logic of childbearing shifted from quantity to quality” and women had greater opportunities to assert their economic autonomy and raise families on their own. Well, at least some did.

Actually, while middle-class professional women surge forward, a pernicious class divide condemns poorer women into a dual burden of economic hardship and family caregiving pressures. This is in part reflected in declining marriage rates. The oft-lamented meltdown of the “nuclear family” isn’t caused by the loss of “family values,” but, rather, shows how regressive policies fail to value families.

Falling marriage rates may reflect social progress (women’s liberation) as well as social instability (impoverishment affects relationships), Cherlin argues: The problem is that economic realities and welfare policy have failed to keep pace with either the economy or contemporary culture.

Cherlin argues that it makes sense that our culture is moving away from the stereotypical heteronormative married household model. But as marriage rates slip, “the problem of the fall of the working-class family from its midcentury peak, then, is not that the male-breadwinner family has declined—it would eventually have collapsed under its own weight. The problem is that nothing stable has replaced it.”

Although a working parent doesn’t need to be married to provide stability, Cherlin argues that attaining the kind of social and economic stability needed for a kid to thrive is increasingly difficult, sometimes impossible, for the working poor. Pervasive economic insecurity—resulting from the decline of manufacturing industries, the erosion of unions, the gutting of welfare programs, and widening wealth gaps—means a young person might have trouble committing to any relationship amid such tumult.

“By the time they are age forty, the highly educated are more likely to have ever been married than are those with less education,” according to Cherlin. “The less educated, in contrast, lack the confidence that they will be able to find a partner who can also help to sustain a good marriage, and their doubts are well founded. The financial stability that they consider adequate may never appear.”

But the problem isn’t that people are turning away from marriage, as conservatives argue (a rhetoic laden with ugly racial and gender stereotypes). If we want the security and emotional well-being that used to be associated with marriage, there’s no turning back the clock, nor should there be. Cherlin suggests that to move social policy in a progressive direction state institutions need to fulfill the social needs that used to tether people to the institution of marriage. Families of all varieties, single or coupled, married or not, need support. More generous workplace benefits and anti-discrimination policies for working women, paradoxically, might have two divergent effects, Cherlin says: “it can allow them to bear and raise children independently of men.” But it could also make it more possible to build stable, long-term romantic partnerships (in or out of wedlock).

The bottom line is that equitable welfare policy provides women a fuller range of options for finding social contentment. Despite the conservative hand-wringing, marriage itself was never a “cure” for social problems. The institution served as a proxy for social goods and relationships that allowed people to live full lives. We’re all entitled to pursue that happiness—and we shouldn’t have to put a ring on it.

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