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August 11, 2014 at 4:00 AM

Why helping working parents is good for business

 

By Rex Huppke / Chicago Tribune

(Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

The term “work/life balance” has become ubiquitous, yet most American workers remain decidedly unbalanced.

That’s not to say there aren’t companies doing the right thing by offering employees flexibility, paid leave and other accommodations. Those are the smart businesses, the ones that put a premium on attracting and retaining talented people.

But those companies remain the exception and not the rule, an odd fact in a country where people of every faith and political stripe speak of “the family” as being sacrosanct.

During a recent White House Summit on Working Families, President Barack Obama said: “Family leave, child care, workplace flexibility, a decent wage — these are not frills; they are basic needs. They shouldn’t be bonuses; they should be part of our bottom line as a society.”

I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, while the president talked a good game and said he would make sure federal agencies enforce existing rules that provide workers with work/life flexibility, he hasn’t done much to help working parents. His Republican counterparts in Congress have done even less.

For example, lawmakers haven’t advanced the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. And, as The Washington Post reported, Obama hasn’t endorsed “the leading Democratic proposal on Capitol Hill — the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act — which would guarantee 12 weeks of paid leave,” largely because it would require him to break a campaign promise by making a small tax increase on the middle class.

Change from within

Given the gridlock in Washington, the best hope for change comes from companies large and small recognizing that treating workers fairly is not just morally right, it’s good business.

“Our sense is that small- to medium-size employers have a handle on this because they’re competing in the same talent pool with bigger companies, and their ability to retain and attract people is based on flexibility, livable wages, equitable pay and mobility in the company,” says Loren Harris, director of family economic security at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. “Employers are looking at how they can attract and retain the best talent. They’re seeing the writing on the wall and seeing that these issues are core to their mission.”

But many larger corporations, knowing how gigantic the pool of available workers is, don’t put much priority on accommodating employees.

“As with a lot of things in this country, there are sort of two Americas,” says Tom Spiggle, a Virginia-based workplace attorney and author of the upcoming book, “You’re Pregnant? You’re Fired: Protecting Mothers, Fathers and Other Caregivers in the Workplace.”

“If you look at the country overall, we’re doing very poorly with family issues,” Spiggle says, “especially compared to most other developed countries.

“There are companies that are on the cutting edge and doing really good work with that, and then there’s everybody else, your line workers in the fast-food industry and in the lower end of the income chain. There are just some horrendous stories.”

Spiggle says that since 2008, there has been a “significant rise” in pregnancy discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: “These are just the people that bothered to go to the EEOC and file something. For every one of them, there are probably 10 who didn’t make a claim.”

Know your rights

Rather than waiting for lawmakers to mandate family-friendly workplace rules, Spiggle encourages people to make sure they understand the protections already in place. Things like the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (particularly as it relates to caregivers) and the Equal Pay Act.

“There are a number of rights that people have, and they’re complicated,” Spiggle says. “It’s not like you can just type something into Google and it all makes sense. But at least look. There are some good resources out there now, and people need to better understand their rights.”

Spiggle’s book, which will be published in September, provides a great overview of the laws, along with advice on handling instances of discrimination or unfair workplace treatment. This is not a book advocating frivolous lawsuits — it’s a thoughtful explanation of worker protections.

He also recommended the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law as a resource.

This is an issue everyone — from workers to managers to business owners — should care about.

In his book, Spiggle writes: “Raising children is, without argument, a matter of fundamental importance for this nation. Yet, for whatever reason, our country has chosen not to devote many public resources — for example, subsidized day care — to helping parents make balanced career decisions. I think this is shortsighted.”

He’s right. So let’s not treat that as opinion; let’s treat it as fact.

Doing more to help working parents will strengthen three things: our social fabric, our economy and our future.

How do you argue against that?

Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at rhuppke@tribune.com or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.

More in Salary & Benefits | Topics: benefits, flex time, work/life balance

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