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Father's Day reflection on Corporate America's pitiful work-and-family policies

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The comedian/actor Billy Chrystal, a native Long Islander, recounts how for a time, he was the primary caretaker for his young daughter while his wife went off to work. As a comedian, he worked nights, so would come home around 3 in the morning, then wake up at 6 am to take care of her until his wife returned from work, and he handed her off.

Today, a record number of female partners are in more lucrative jobs than their husbands, and in a significant number of households, are the ones to go off to work while the husbands have the role of "Mr. Mom."

About 550,000 men were stay-at-home dads in the past decade. That's about 3.5 percent of all married couples with children in households where at least one spouse worked full-time. In the 1970s, about 2 percent of households had men who stayed home with the kids.

Put another way, one in five young children in two-parent families have their father as the primary caregiver when the mother is at work, attending school, or looking for work.

There is even a National At Home Dad Network

There are multiple reasons why this is a growing trend - the first because there is in fact greater acknowledged equality among men and women both in the workforce, where many more wives are in jobs earning more money than the men, as well as in the home where there is greater acceptance of a father as the primary caretaker. The second reason is the sheer cost of child care - think of it this way: the first $50,000 of income goes to either a nanny or to a child care center. The third is because of the recession, many more men lost their jobs than women (who were likely at a lower salary, even for the same job, representing a 23% discount for the employer, not just because of inequity but because the man was probably in the job longer and at a higher pay grade).

Now, fathers' will experience the same problems that mothers do when they have to detour out of a career.

And the fact that men are being affected, there may be some serious discussion of flexible work and access to affordable, quality, day care.

Still, the vast majority of families cannot afford to have a stay-at-home caretaker, even with the high cost of care - 67% of households with children under 18, have both parents working full time outside the house.

Indeed, 70.5 percent of mothers are in the labor force, including 64.8 percent of mothers with a child under the age of 6.

This means that while millions of families are dependent upon child care but there is a critical shortage in the availability of accessible, quality, affordable child care.

Here in Great Neck, we have a model program, CLASP Children's Center, which was a trailblazer in the early days of the Women's Revolution n the 1970s, and continues to be a model.

CLASP was a lifesaver for me - and so many others in our community for what CLASP did for us and in the way we formed an extended CLASP family to support one another. Besides what it did for us working parents (alleviating the anxiety and stress of knowing your children are well cared for, even happier than if they were at home), was that I attribute a good deal of the success they had in school, in college and now career to the quality care and the early education philosophy, Reggio Emelia, that CLASP's founding director Mary Kasindorf, imported from Italy.

Things have changed somewhat at CLASP - it no longer offers the before and after school program for elementary school kids that coincided with working parents commuting hours, since SCOPE came in and began to offer that at the school buildings.

But actually, we have something even better, even more cutting edge: CLASP now offers an infant and toddler program from 12 weeks , and then the youngsters slip into the program for 3s and 4s (for some parents, this suits better than the pre-K program and SCOPE together) because CLASP offers the program from 7:30 am to 6:30 pm, year-round.

CLASP used to assess tuition on a sliding scale based on income, and used to get subsidies with which to pay its teachers from Nassau County. Subsidies are gone and so is the sliding scale.

The cost to send your child to child care is equivalent to a college tuition - $1680/month for infants (that works out to $20,160 a year); and $1550/month for the toddler and pre-K ($18,600 a year) - essentially, the first $35,000 of earnings would have to go to day care.

France does it differently - child care is considered part of public school - it is free.

But perhaps CLASP parents will get a bit of a boost. Politicians have begun sounding their recognition of the importance of child care to working families.

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo (hoping to get in tight with the Working Families Party) recently announced more than $794 million in child care subsidy funding, an increase of $55 million over last fiscal year, to address the widespread need among low-income working families for affordable child care. this will be a boon for the families of the 223,000 children who receive subsidies. The 7.45% increase in allocations for the NYS Child Care Block Grant (CCBG) is the first in five years.

Nassau County will receive $44,065,328 (and where does that money actually go?) (CLASP gets some subsidies to help income-eligible families - that is, those who earn less than $47,100 for a family of four, but the vast majority of families get no subsidy).

“Working parents should not have to choose between affordable care for their children and maintaining a job,” Governor Cuomo said. “The Child Care Block Grant is a vital resource for households across New York, and I am proud that this year we are dramatically increasing the program’s funding, helping to provide stability and quality child care for hard-working families statewide.”

But even these minimalist gestures to easing the burden of child care do not address the bigger, structural problem: corporate indifference to families.

Indeed, families may have evolved, but workplaces have not.

There was a brief time during the boom years of the 1980s when the Women's Movement took hold and Corporate America found it really needed the talent and sweat of women in the workplace, when many companies explored the notion of offering daycare on-site. Here in Great Neck, CMP became one of the first (and still one of the only) Long Island companies to have an on-site day-care center (up until then, CMP and its founders, Gerry and Lilo Leeds were huge supporters of CLASP, and for 10 years before its full-fledged child care center, had an on-site summer day camp for employees' kids - those were the happiest times at that company for me).

Companies also dabbled with flex-time, job-sharing, work-at-home (this was before "telecommuting" was possible) and other strategies.

But these have never became part of the structural fabric of Corporate America, which had to be forced by federal law to even offer parental leave, and pretty much ended with the economic contraction and soaring unemployment rates.

And herein lies the rub: this country purports to cherish "family values" but does everything possible to put unnecessary obstacles in front of families that only produce excess stress and anxiety that is felt not just by parents but by children.

Our society has a schizophrenic attitude to "family values" and parenting. How else do you explain "welfare reform" that requires new mothers, even single parents, to work, most likely at wages that cannot support the family, let alone pay for child care, while the wealthiest households (exemplified by Ann Romney) are heralded for opting out of their careers to be full-time caretakers in the home (I suspect it has to do with eliminating competition, which raises salaries for those left in such privileged positions).

Corporate America manufactures an unnecessary Hobson's choice: being forced to go back to work and leave an infant or toddler to someone else's care (at a cost equivalent to take-home pay for one salary, or a college tuition), or give up the chance to fulfill one's professional aspirations while cutting into the family's standard of living because of the lost income. It is sad, really, to hear of a parent who has gone through medical school, law school, or earned a business degree giving it all up to be home because they can't take the stress of trying to be SuperMom. And as many fathers are finding, even taking a sabbatical derails your career and lifetime earnings because in most professions, you can't go back, a new wave of professionals has run up that ladder.

There should be better solutions and better choices, and guess what, there are.

Technology and the fact that business enterprises are no longer local or even regional, but rather national and global in scope, should favor such things as telecommuting (which also benefits the environment by reducing automobile traffic); flexible schedules (why is 9-5 so sacrosanct, especially in a global, 24/7 economy?), job-sharing, working 3 or 4 long days instead of 5 (or 6) 8-hour days.

A company like Yahoo, you would think, would be on the leading edge of such a trend, being a technology company, global in scope, and headed no less by a woman and mother of a young child.

Instead, Yahoo is the clearest example of why such mechanisms have not taken hold: CEO Marissa Mayer banned telecommuting.

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices,” Jackie Reses, Yahoo’s human resources chief, wrote in the memo notifying employees. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.”

That may be well and good for Mayer, a former Google Inc executive and "notorious workaholic" who took the top job at Yahoo when she was five months pregnant and took only two weeks of maternity leave, because she had the means and the authority to build a nursery next to her office at her own expense to be closer to her infant son and work even longer hours.

"Now working moms are in an uproar because they believe that Mayer is setting them back by taking away their flexible working arrangements. Many view telecommuting as the only way time-crunched women can care for young children and advance their careers without the pay, privilege or perks that come with being the chief executive of a Fortune 500 company," wrote Amy Tuteur, MD at The Skeptical OB.

The nationwide outrage at Mayer's comments forced Yahoo months later to expand parental benefits (but not rescind the ban on telecommuting): new mothers and fathers can take up to 8 weeks of fully-paid leave. If a woman gave birth to the baby, she is entitled to an additional 8 weeks of paid leave, for a total of 16 weeks paid leave (an increase from 6 weeks leave for mothers and no parental leave at all). New parents would also get up to $500 for expenses such as child care and laundry, Yahoo said - a token considering that child care can cost $20,000 a year.

"Yahoo's new paid leave policy may be much more generous than what is offered by many other employers in the United States, but Yahoo still is not in line with some of its largest competitors: Facebook offers 16 weeks of paid leave to both mothers and fathers, along with $4,000 of 'baby cash.' Google gives new mothers 18 weeks to 22 weeks of paid leave, while parents can take up to seven weeks of paid time off," Alexei Oreskovic of Reuters noted.

I'm betting that Yahoo will have to make additional changes because the economics of forcing parents to pay the expense of child care will make more of them opt out and stay home, costing Yahoo valuable human resources.

The Obama Administration is the first to address what is frankly a crisis for working families - not just in pushing for a higher minimum wage, healthier meals at schools, better funding for public education, but is actually convening a Working Families Summit on June 23 to focus on "how we can strengthen our nation's workplaces to better support working families, boost businesses’ bottom lines, and ensure America’s global economic competitiveness in the coming decades."

"The past four decades have seen a dramatic transformation of the U.S. workforce, fueled largely by changes in American families. In 1970, millions of American families relied on the support of a full-time stay-at-home caregiver, usually a wife. The world of the 21st century is different. Today, less than one in three children has a parent that stays at home and women comprise half—47 percent—of all workers on U.S payrolls. The movement of women out of the home and into the paid labor force stands out as one of the most important transformations of the American workforce. Women increasingly play a central role in determining their families’ economic standing—6 in 10 women are now the sole, primary, or co-breadwinners for their families. But many workplaces have not caught up. Too many women still earn less than men for doing the same job and often face barriers to job advancement. Although all workers will directly benefit from better workplace policy, the impact will be greatest for working women and their families."

"To create workplaces that are thriving and competitive in today’s global economy, we must make full use of the talented pool of American workers. The White House Summit on Working Families will focus on strategies to ensure all members of our society have equal access to high-quality jobs. Of particular significance is the increasingly important role of women as breadwinners in working families."

Among the issues that will be addressed include workplace flexibility, equal pay, workplace discrimination, worker retention and promotion, opportunities for low-wage workers, elder care, childcare, and early childhood education.

"We hope the White House Summit on Working Families will fuel and energize action across the country to strengthen our workplaces and working families, enhance business success, and keep our country competitive in the global economy. Every American—from business and government, to academics and advocates, to women and men across the country— can play a role in helping working families become more economically secure and making our country more competitive. We want every participant to walk away with concrete tools and strategies they can use to improve their workplace practices, become more economically secure, and to create change in their own communities." (see workingfamiliessummit.org).

"Government cannot do it alone," Obama said in perhaps the biggest understatement of his presidency. In fact, government can't do anything at all. These are changes that employers must make (let's see the moral conscience and family values of Hobby Lobby).

"Everyone has a role to play, and we want everyone to be involved in helping to make our workplaces stronger and our families more secure."

But the fact is that companies have had decades to "step up to the plate" and have shown time and time again, that without sufficient "prodding" they simply fail to do so. This is true about paying a living wage, cutting carbon emissions, protecting the environment, and also about providing a proper work-and-family balance.

If this happens, it won't be because of some sense of Corporate Conscience and desire to make a better, more humane society, it will be because of the sheer economics and the concern of losing the talent and contribution of mothers and yes, fathers. The increase in the use of technology permeating all work, the nationalization and globalization of jobs, the desire of employers to actually save money on providing office space, and even the trend toward using "contract" workers instead of "full-time" workers (another cost savings), means that more parents will actually have the opportunity - as I did - to work from home and find their own work/family balance. It is the only way to make child care cost-effective compared to the wages that most workers can command, and actually benefits families by removing much of the stress (mainly of commuting, of not being able to get back home to children in time) by giving workers more control over their schedule.

But there should be a social conscience. If this society truly cherished "family values" and also wanted to enable individuals to fulfill their potential and be as productive as they could for society and not force a neurosurgeon to choose between being a nurturing parent or save lives, this is how it should be done:

Here's my radical idea: Mothers should get paid maternity leave for 16 weeks (or fathers, if they are the primary caretaker). If the company does not offer a telecommuting, job-share, or flex-work situation so the parent can continue to remain productive and make a contribution while having a central caretaking role, then the worker should receive a stipend to stay home for the first two years and a guarantee to return to work; also, there should be quality, accessible, affordable child care available for 2 and 3 year olds, and universal full-day pre-K, with before/after school care available.

Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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