A week after the international Human Rights Watch came out with a scathing report on the USA’s abysmal lack of paid family leave policies in the workplace, the Obama Administration unveiled its own report revealing that women are still being paid only about 80 cents to a man’s dollar. And what is our president going to do about it? Why, consult private corporations of course. We can be sure these behemoth, tax-dodging, profit-hoarding, overseas job-shipping, male-dominated, hoggish bonus-awarding conglomerates will immediately do the right thing and start paying women what they’re worth. And not only that – they will hire more women, give them paid maternity leave, set up on-site day care centers and establish remunerated liberal leave policies to care for sick family members. All because President Obama asks them, nicely, to do the right thing. His assistant, Valerie Jarrett, has announced a partnership with private industry that would “encourage” girls to enter more lucrative professions. Cool.
The Human Rights report story, which was buried in last week’s Times and got little corporate media attention, points out that the United States is an “extreme outlier” when it comes to family-friendly workplace policies. Of 179 other countries in the developed world, the USA is alone in not providing mandatory, extended paid maternity leave. And contrary to the constant haranguing of our politicians that social safety net programs are the cause of our deficit, the truth is that nations with humane employment laws actually do better economically. They are competititive and they are productive. Workers are more rested, they get more vacation time, they work fewer hours and they don’t feel forced to come to work sick. Oh, and they can afford all this because, because they tax the wealthy at reasonable rates. They don’t make working people suffer so the wealthy can get even richer. Their top one percent of millionaires and billionaires don’t hold a full third of the wealth of an entire nation, like ours does.
The Human Rights Watch people conclude that as a result of our economic barbarism, we Americans are less healthy and definitely not as happy as our global fellows. Our children don’t do as well in school and they tend to get into more trouble. The parents are tired, the kids are bored and neglected. The elderly are shipped off to nursing homes, putting a further unnecessary strain on Medicare and Medicaid. Other countries are more liberal in providing in-home care.
We currently have unpaid family leave legislation, but that only covers about half the nation’s workforce. Only 11 percent of companies provide paid leave to care for family members. Although two-thirds of American workers have some paid sick time, only one fifth of the low-income workers do. These benefits are decreasing as the glut of job-seekers increases and employers are less inclined to provide incentives for employees to stay on the job. The workers of America have become mere fodder and are emininently expendable. American life is cheap.
“ We can't afford not to guarantee paid family leave under law – especially in these tough economic times. The US is actually missing out by failing to ensure that all workers have access to paid family leave. Countries that have these programs show productivity gains, reduced turnover costs, and health care savings” said Janet Walsh, deputy womens rights director of HRW. "Millions of US workers - including parents of infants - are harmed by weak or nonexistent laws on paid leave, breastfeeding accommodation, and discrimination against workers with family responsibilities,” she continued. "Workers face grave health, financial, and career repercussions as a result. US employers miss productivity gains and turnover savings that these cost-effective policies generate in other countries".
The 90-page report, "Failing its Families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Supports in the US," is based on interviews with 64 parents across the country. It documents the health and financial impact on American workers of having little or no paid family leave after childbirth or adoption, employer reticence to offer breastfeeding support or flexible schedules, and workplace discrimination against new parents, especially mothers. Parents said that having scarce or no paid leave contributed to delaying babies' immunizations, postpartum depression and other health problems, and caused mothers to give up breastfeeding early. Many who took unpaid leave went into debt and some were forced to seek public assistance. Some women said employer bias against working mothers derailed their careers. Same-sex parents were often denied even unpaid leave. (from the Human Rights Watch report).
The White House-commissioned-study on women and girls was the first such report since President Kennedy commissioned Eleanor Roosevelt to conduct one in the 1960s. Of course, back then, women were paid lousily when they had jobs at all. But income tax levels were still equitable and there was a thriving middle class. Families could actually survive on one paycheck.
Not so today. Families are barely making ends meet on two, even three or four paychecks, many of them earned at low or no-benefit, low-wage jobs. Jobs that disappeared at the high end of the wage scale are not coming back. Wages have not only stagnated - they are plummeting. President Obama himself instituted a wage freeze on federal employees which amounts to a virtual five-year wage cut. States have not only followed suit in cutting wages and eliminating jobs, but they are instituting full-scale attacks on workers’ unions and collective bargaining rights. Congressional Republicans have gone even further, aggressively attacking every program that benefits women and children. WIC, which provides funding for mother and child nutrition, and Planned Parenthood, are just two of them. These Republicans actually seem to harbor a deep-seated hatred for families and all vulnerable members of society. Better that a billionaire can buy another yacht than a hundred innocent children have a roof over their heads and enough to eat. Even Dickens would be shocked by the barbarism of 21st century America. Human Rights Watch watch surely was, and they’ve certainly seen it all – from cholera outbreaks and homelessness in Haiti to the bloody streets of autocratic Libya. We are officially a banana republic. So much for American exceptionalism.
And what would Eleanor Roosevelt think? Well, we know she wouldn’t be hanging around the White House at a press conference and photo ops touting a new study about the plight of women and offering no solutions. We know she would not be approaching the spawn of J.P. Morgan or Andrew Mellon to ask for "suggestions". I have a feeling she would be camped out at the state capital in Madison to show solidarity with the nurses and teachers and firefighters being scapegoated by the oligarchs.
"You in the unions do not yet represent all of labor. But I hope some day you will, because I believe that it is through strength, through the fact that people who know what people need are working to make this country a better place for all people, that we will help the world to accept our leadership and understand that under our form of government, and through our way of life, we have something to offer them." (Eleanor Roosevelt, ACWA Convention, 1956).