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Blue collar blues

Hillary Wicai Sep 4, 2006


TESS VIGELAND: Labor Day is usually a time to celebrate the American worker, but some are hard-pressed to celebrate when they’re one sick kid away from losing a job. Work and family conflict is often seen as a middle class phenomenon. But the consequences are actually harsher for those with fewer resources. From the Marketplace Work and Family Desk, Hillary Wicai reports.

LORI: Do you have homework?

SON: Yeah.

OTHER SON: I don’t!

LORI: I need to see the book first.

HILLARY WICAI: This 35-year-old certified nursing assistant in Pennsylvania has two boys and a husband who works crazy hours at an auto parts plant. Two and a half years ago, her youngest came down with the flu and a fever of almost 104. He had to be hospitalized for three days and she got fired.

LORI: They told me I should get somebody else to take care of my son, because my job was more important.

She eventually got another nursing home job, this time a union position. We’ll call her Lori. It’s not her real name because she’s afraid she’s about to lose this job too. Her boys are older, but so is her mother.

Lori’s mom requires regular care. She’s got crippling arthritis and can’t even pull up her own stockings. Lori gives her mom an injection once a week and it’s important that it’s on schedule. But lately, Lori’s employer has been mandating overtime without advance warning.

LORI: I’ve even been willing to go home, give her a shot, take care of my kids and then come back and I will do my job.

No dice. On the day the shot was due and after Lori had worked a full shift, her boss told her to stay. Lori explained why she couldn’t but still got suspended without pay.

The Service Employees International Union filed a grievance won back her pay, but Lori’s suspension letter remains in her file. One more mandatory overtime conflict and she loses this job too.

LORI: What happens if I get fired? I can’t get fired. It’s bad because I don’t really have any money saved.

Joan Williams at the Center for Work Life Law has studied arbitrated union cases. She says lack of access to childcare and working in inflexible jobs complicates everything.

JOAN WILLIAMS: There was one arbitration in which a woman was disciplined for being three minutes late.

Williams says it’s rare for an arbitrator to agree with the company that a worker clearly broke the rules but also agree that the worker had a darn good reason to. Yet, Williams found more than a third of roughly 100 cases she reviewed came to such split decisions.

If you have a single mom with two small children, even if you order her to show up to work and leave them home alone, she’s not going to. Because if she does that, she risks being arrested for child neglect.

The Families and Work Institute says 54 percent of men in dual earner couples experience the same problems.

Netsy Firestein at the Labor Project for Working Families has seen it before.

NETSY FIRESTEIN: I do think that workers tend to feel that these issues are kind of their own personal problem. OK you know mom fell and broke her hip and you need to call the doctor and arrange for care. You need to sort of figure it out yourself.

But Williams and others argue if the workforce’s needs are changing but the workplace hasn’t, then it is a workplace issue.

And some researchers say the workplace should change because there’s money in it. One recent study tallied 28 companies internal productivity studies. The results showed that more flexible work policies, such as compressed work weeks for blue-collar workers, cut costs.

At Kaiser Permanente the company and its unions formed a labor management partnership. The idea is to come up with solutions to workplace conflicts.

Ed Porter is with Kaiser. He says the company has eliminated mandatory overtime, but it’s a tough thing to have done because patients also have needs.

ED PORTER: It’s always a delicate balance between providing patient care and having the appropriate staffing to do so.

Lori in Pennsylvania thinks she’ll get fired before her company makes a similar change.

LORI: The people that are telling us that our lives should remain the same are the same people that make a whole lot more money than me and can afford a whole lot more stuff than me.

Stuff like child care and elder care.

LORI: How am I supposed to change my life to fit their needs when they’re not changing their rules to fit our lives?

In Washington, I’m Hillary Wicai for Marketplace.

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