Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Guest Post from Amanda Reilly

One More Straw

Most parents would agree that simultaneously managing family responsibilities and paid work can be hard. Research in this area frequently focuses on the difficulties faced by middle class professional women (which is unsurprising since much of this research is carried out by middle class women who have a very personal stake in the issue). However, a recent joint report by the UC Hastings College of Law Work Life Law Center and the Center for American progress shines a light on how work family conflict affects poor and working class families. It makes for harrowing and heartbreaking reading. Click here to read the whole report

Here is one extract I found particularly upsetting: Kim Braithwaite was making progress. She was working two jobs to support her two children, 9-year old Justina and 1-year-old Justin. But on October 12, 2003, she faced a dilemma: her babysitter was late. Kim would be tardy for her shift at McDonald’s if she delayed and she worried that she would be fired. The sitter would arrive in a few minutes, Kim reasoned, and she left for work. The next she heard was from the police. Her children were found dead in her front room; her apartment had caught fire before the babysitter arrived. Kim was arrested for child neglect. Said a neighbor, “It’s hard when a single mother has two or three kids and has to work a lot. But I never hear her kids crying, never see her yelling at them. She is a good mom. ”'

Could such a tragedy occur in New Zealand? One would hope not but I suspect we would not have to look too hard to find families in New Zealand who, like those identified in the report ‘get few benefits from their employers to help manage work-life conflict and often hold jobs with inconsistent or unpredictable schedules that exacerbate these conflicts. Government policies to help these families are too often inadequate and underfunded, yet conservatives point to the problems these families have in balancing work and family as proof of their “irresponsibility.”’

There are no quick fixes or easy answers to the problem of helping families to manage work and family. However, the consequences of the recent proposal to amend the Holidays Act, to give employers the right to request a medical certificate if an employee is absent from work for a single day, strike me as likely to be particularly harsh on poor working families. For a well paid single person with reliable transportation having to go to a doctor for a medical certificate because your employer suspects you took the day off to go shopping is a minor inconvenience. But the same requirement to obtain a medical certificate could be a significant imposition on a struggling solo parent on a low wage with no car and a complex web of childcare arrangements to juggle. Keep in mind also that under s65 of the Holidays Act an employee may take sick leave if a person who depends on the employee for care is sick or injured. Anecdotally, many working parents of young children use up their statutory sick leave entitlements on caring for their children and soldier on at work if they themselves are ill. Any parent who has experienced what it is like to be up all night with a vomiting child and then had to drag themselves to work the next day ought to be able to empathize with the burdens that illness must impose on poor working families. These families deserve our respect and support. I have no doubt that many good employers are supportive and understanding of their employees with family responsibilities and that the proposed law change will make no difference to their treatment of their workforce. However, not all employers are good or sensitive and I fear that conferring the ability to compel employees to obtain medical certificates after one day of sick leave on employers could be one more straw for the backs of already struggling workers and families.

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