Work-Family Balance?

Not Quite...

American companies have come a long way over the last decade in trying to offer working parents a safety net of more flexible scheduling and family-friendly policies. But a 2006 survey shows that we've still got a long way to go.

One in three working moms have sent a child to school or daycare sick because their work schedules didn't allow them to take the day off, according to the Working Mother magazine survey of its Working Mothers Smart Moms Council, an online panel of moms. Seventy percent of those mothers reported feeling guilty about the decision, while up to 48 percent of the respondents said they felt stressed and torn when deciding whether or not to send a sick child to school.

Carol Evans, CEO and founder of Working Mother Media which publishes Working Mother, says moms often serve as the "family health manager," and notes that although some strides have been made in securing flexibility for working moms, the survey reinforces the fact that "there is still much work to be done."

The media often focuses on high-earning professional women when discussing workplace inflexibility, says Joan Williams, head of the Center for WorkLife Law, a research and advocacy group at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. But most professionals at least have some flexibility, she says, with work-from-home possibilities, early departures or longer lunch hours without serious consequences.

It's the working-class that's hardest hit by workplace inflexibility.

Last spring, the Center for WorkLife Law released a report, titled "One Sick Child Away From Being Fired: When Opting Out is Not An Option." Reviewing union arbitration cases in which workers were fired or disciplined for taking unscheduled time off or refusing mandatory overtime to care for a sick child or family member, the report found that employees are frequently forced to choose between responding to a family crisis or hanging onto that paycheck.

"Among the working class, forget about taking an hour off to see the school play," says Williams. "You can get fired for leaving to pick up a sick child from school."

In times of family crisis and when backup childcare arrangements fall through, workers may be at risk of suspension without pay or even termination when they refuse mandatory overtime, and many lack the resources to hire help or seek professional care for sick or needy loved ones.

Most employers believe it's too expensive to implement flextime for nonprofessional workers - even though inflexible policies hurt the bottom line and force workers to call in sick when they have to care for family members, the report notes. Nevertheless, the center recommends designing family-responsive overtime systems and providing reduced-hour and flexible-work options.

- Elaine Rogers


  • BetterTogether  - An initiative of the Harvard University-based Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, this Web site includes hundreds of ideas for increasing your social connections.

  • The Center for WorkLife Law  - Based at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, this research and advocacy group works to eliminate discrimination against parents and adult children of aging parents.