The majority of low-wage workers in the U.S. are women, many of whom are breadwinners, caregivers, bill payers, bail payers, food stamp appliers, rent payers, and all around super women. The limited federal employment protections available to workers in the U.S. almost entirely fail to address their needs, but newly passed state statutes provide some hope for change.
A large percentage of low income women work for businesses that are too small for the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to require that their employers provide unpaid, job guaranteed leave to heal from serious health conditions, including pregnancy. Importantly, even if the FMLA did cover their employers, many of the reasons these low-income working women need job guaranteed leave from work aren’t included in the FMLA. Also, the requirement that a worker must work for 12 months before she can qualify to take the leave makes it inaccessible to many low wage working women who struggle to maintain a job with the same employer for that long because they are fired for missing one day of work for any reason. This is in large part because there is no federal law that requires employers to provide any paid sick time to their employees. Although some employers voluntarily provide these luxuries to their employees, not surprisingly, 57% of women workers in the ten largest low-wage occupations for women are without paid sick days.
In addition, many of these low-wage working women’s jobs are exempted from most wage and hour laws requiring that employers pay minimum wage, overtime, and provide breaks. However, there is a glimmer of hope.
Last week, the New York State Legislature passed a bill that would create a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights and sent it to Governor Patterson for his signature. This bill is remarkable for many reasons, including the fact that it provides protections and rights for a group of low-wage workers who are almost entirely women. It also acknowledges that domestic workers are actually a viable group of workers who deserve respect, and, shockingly, paid holidays, paid vacations, and overtime. This legislative success is a result of amazing efforts that include the voices of the workers themselves, creating a set of protections that is accessible to the majority of them and reflective of the actual needs of these workers: it will require employers provide one rest day every calendar work week, paid at the overtime rate; require employers to provide up to seven paid sick days and five paid vacation days each year for full-time workers, and four paid sick days and three paid vacation days for part-time workers and; require that domestic workers and their employers are covered by the New York Human Rights Law, meaning that domestic workers are protected by New York State’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment in the workplace laws. The focus on paid time off from work is worth noting. Low wage working women need paid time off from work for a wide variety of reasons that may or may not include caring for a sick child, or parent. It may involve bailing out a brother or traveling to a foreign country to visit family. It may include attending a custody hearing in which she is seeking custody of her child after discovering that her boyfriend was sexually abusing her.
In addition to this remarkable piece of legislation, several states have adopted laws that provide unpaid leave from work for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and/or stalking to heal from injuries caused by the abuse, to attend court proceedings related to the violence, or to seek counseling or other assistance from community based organizations with expertise working with victims. Connecticut is the most recent state to pass such legislation signed by the Governor just last week, also prohibiting an employer from discriminating against on employee for taking the leave or just because she is a victim of one of these heinous crimes, of which women are the most frequent targets.
The broader, national discussion of family-friendly workplaces and flexible workplaces needs to include the voices of not only middle-class women, but also low income, low wage workers, who, if we’re honest, are the women and workers who need protections the most. They are the most vulnerable to job loss because their employers do not voluntarily provide the policies and protections that most of us are accustomed to. As a middle class white woman with two post-high school degrees, I’ve been fortunate to have every employer I’ve worked for (as an adult) provide me with at least two weeks of vacation, and a week of paid sick days. And, I’ve also had the income to carry me if I needed to take unpaid leave under the FMLA.
Job loss means more than the loss of an income temporarily to these women, it means slipping back into poverty, remaining in a violent home and possibly homelessness for themselves and all of those who depend on them. It means another black mark on their job record, making it harder for them to get another job, when during the next job interview they are asked why they were fired from their last job.
We may need to reconsider what the purposes are of employment rights and protections such as paid and unpaid leave from work, and anti-discrimination provisions. Are our goals to increase connectivity to the workforce for workers, specifically low-wage workers who experience job loss more frequently due to non-work related reasons, recognizing that increased connectivity to the workforce is directly related to getting raises, promotions and educational opportunities enabling workers to get out of poverty? If so, then we need to ask low wage workers (again, mostly women) what they need to do that and create protections and rights like those in the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights that are responsive to them.
Robin Runge is an Assistant Professor at the University of North Dakota School of Law where she co-teaches in the Housing and Employment Law Clinic. She directed the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence from 2003-2009.