Women, Know Your (Lack of) Rights

I can not be sure, because I am steeped in the world of working family advocacy, but I believe a consciousness raising is afoot. I can barely refresh my Google or Facebook newsfeeds without being met by a new article, study, or controversy around women in the workplace. Most notably, in recent weeks we saw Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic Monthly, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which addressed the dilemma of “highly educated, well-off women” who rise to the top of their industries only to find that something has to give. It was followed by newly appointed Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s announcement that she was expecting her first baby and would work through her maternity leave. Each was met with a cottage industry’s worth of parsing, most stating how lucky either woman is to have the financial stability to make any decision she so chooses.

In the midst of all this, last week, a women’s rally for paid sick days was held on the steps of City Hall. The New York City Paid Sick Time Act would give workers 5 to 9 paid sick days to use when they or their children get ill. Gloria Steinem reiterated her stance in an email to the New York Times that her support of Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s run to be the first female mayor of New York was conditional on her bringing the Paid Sick Time Act to a vote, a bill that Quinn is currently blocking despite a supermajority of support. More than 200 women have signed on to a letter to Quinn urging passage of the bill. A woman in power—seeking another first for women and for the LGBT community—is being stared down by the women’s movement for her unwillingness to extend a basic workplace right to the most vulnerable people in our society. The brass ring now plays second to a firm grip on the reins. What women need today is not untethered power; it is basic workplace rights.

In New York City, 1.5 million workers lack a single paid sick day to care for themselves or a sick child. While the lack of paid sick time affects all workers in New York (and the general health of the entire population), it particularly affects women. Seventy percent of households in the U.S. are dual-income or single-parent households. But more than 80 percent of single-parents are women. According to the Center for American Progress, among families with incomes in the lowest 20%, women are the primary breadwinners in 70% of households. More women than men hold low-wage jobs that lack benefits. Yet, women continue to perform a vast majority of family care work.

So, what does all of this mean? It means that if a woman gets sick and misses a day’s pay or loses her job, she probably has less financial stability to weather the loss. It means that when a child gets sick, it is far more likely that a mother will make the decision to send her child to school sick and wait for the call from the school nurse. Then that mother will nervously approach her boss to say that she has to leave to pick up her child. Or she will stay at home with her sick child and brace herself for the repercussions at work. The wife will most likely be the one who goes a day without pay to take an ailing parent to the doctor. Since I began organizing around these issues last year, I have spoken to many women—executives, teachers, retail workers—who have sent their children to school sick, or lost their jobs or quit their jobs because of pressure from their employers about their children’s illnesses. As Steinem wrote to the New York Times,

“I’ve seen women lose their jobs, lose their apartments, and spend two years getting their kids back from foster care — all starting with a sick child.”

Madeleine Kunin, the first and only female governor of Vermont and former ambassador to Switzerland, recently published The New Feminist Agenda, in which she argues for nothing less than a working family revolution. I agree wholeheartedly. Now that women have equal entry into the workplace, we need rights that address our realities, including the fact that more often than not, women do family care work. Women give birth and breastfeed. And these realities need to be addressed with paid sick days, paid family leave, protection from pregnancy discrimination, breastfeeding rights, affordable childcare, and equal pay. Kunin recently wrote on Huffpo:

The case has to be made that work-life balance is no longer a women’s issue, nor is it a question of reducing stress or increasing comfort, it is a question of providing this generation of women and men and the next generation with the capacity to achieve what all families desire and the nation desperately needs: to enable parents to be both good caregivers and good providers.

Of course, these issues involve men. But I would argue on this point that first and foremost, these are, in fact, women’s issues. Men will benefit and men should be compelled to fight for these policies, but let’s face it, if women do not recognize how this lack of rights perpetuates a gross inequality in the workplace, then our society is doomed. Our children will suffer for lack of proper care, and our economy will remain stalled. I am no economist, but judging from the needs of my own household, a new New Deal, which is what I consider this package of rights to be, could serve as a cornerstone for any true cross-socioeconomic recovery, providing much needed job protection and a padding of income during our families’ most vulnerable moments—in times of births, illnesses, and deaths—where now there is none. And that support would most benefit women, creating not just more equitable workplaces but also more egalitarian spousal relationships (as it has in Europe).

Last year, I attended a meeting of concerned parents (all women, mind you) who wanted to do something, anything, to foster better work/life balance. They, being educated, well-to-do professionals mostly employing nannies or expensive childcare, were more concerned with work-from-home and flexible work policies like job-shares than anything else. While our goal should be to find that balance, I felt this was missing a critical fact. The workplace policies that the professional class enjoys—paid sick days, insurance, maternity leave (sometimes)—are privileges that we have come to expect, but they are not rights. If our employers decided to take these pieces of our salary package away, we wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on. Compared to what salaried employees enjoy, minimum wage and a complete lack of benefits feels like a bottomless pit from which no one could recover. Wins for professional class women mirror the growing economic disparity across society, pulling the classes farther away from each other. But ultimately, the lack among the working poor depresses the wages and benefits for everyone. If educated professionals expect more as a privileged class, then we should aim not only for better work/life balance policies for ourselves but also for setting a minimum standard of rights on which to build.

This is the new feminist agenda, a foundation, a new baseline for the rights of working women (and men). I hope that women across the country will wake up and join the fight for our own good, for our less fortunate sisters’ good, and for our children’s good. In our city, right now that fight revolves around paid sick days. And Christine Quinn, as a woman, should know better. You can let her know as much here.

Cari Jackson is a lot of things, including the Director of Parent Organizing for A Better Balance.


  1. Alan says:

    Thank you Ms. Jackson for a persuasive and cogent article. I hope that ACT will engage with Quinn so that her mayoral aspirations include these points.

  2. Andrew Solomon says:

    A well written piece, as usual, Cari. One quibble: I don’t think that enacting these rights would have much of an economic impact either way — that is, in terms of growth and job creation. How the benefits of economic growth are allocated, of course, is a different question.

    • Cari says:

      Thanks, Andrew! All of these benefits help men and women in particular keep their jobs. Each also lowers healthcare costs, through prevention of contagion, better infant health, and improved maternal health. And Paid Family Leave puts real money in people’s hands where now there is none (or very little). In my own experience, I had no access to paid leave. If I had, I would have had thousands of dollars extra over 12 weeks of leave. And instead of paying off debt from that period of my life, my family would be spending that money or investing it. I don’t have the economic data offhand from New Jersey and California, but I can only assume that greater job protection, more women staying in the workforce, and money in people’s hands at moments that often require more spending would all spur the economy, particularly if these benefits were enacted nationwide. I’m not an economist, so I can’t map the flow of wealth through an economy, but I’m curious how you think that it absolutely won’t.

    • Cari says:

      Additionally, paid sick days and paid family leave’s long-term effects for children, having had access to their parents and to breastfeeding at birth and having faster recovery time from childhood illnesses, should pay off economically with a healthier, more capable workforce in the future. And paid sick days, while the payout would be nominal, will put money in people’s hands. If 44 million Americans suddenly had paid sick days, if each were suddenly paid for, say, 2 days off that would have gone unpaid, that’s a few hundred dollars per person going into individual bank accounts every year. Bush learned that a one-time payout doesn’t do much, but if this added income were sustained year after year, that’s thousands of dollars earned over a person’s career. And billions coming out of corporate coffers and into individual’s hands, where it can do the most good.

      • Andrew says:

        Cari, I think your points are good ones, but they go mostly to questions of distribution, rather than economic growth per se. I could imagine modestly-improved child rearing leading to some economic boost over a several-decade period, but that’d be pretty hard to pin down. The point about more women staying in the workforce is an interesting one, but it’s hard to know how much impact it would have — probably positive, but the magnitude isn’t obvious to me.

        • Cari says:

          There was this Rutgers study on the effects of paid family leave in NJ, http://news.rutgers.edu/medrel/news-releases/2012/01/rutgers-study-finds-20120118/
          which points to economic gains, not specifically in jobs added, but jobs retained. “While we have known for a long time about the maternal and infant health benefits of leave policies, we can now link paid family leave to greater labor force attachment and increased wages for women, as well as to reduced spending by businesses in the form of employee replacement costs, and by governments in the form of public assistance.”

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