Just when I manage to climb out of the depressing pit so much of the news plunges me into these days, some new outrageous incident pushes me back down. My latest ‘back in the dumps’ experience is the news coverage of the young mother fired by Whole Foods in Chicago. Rhiannon Broschat didn’t come in to work because city schools were closed due to frigid temperatures and she could not find care for her special needs son. She called in ahead of her shift to alert the store management.
My reaction to the first news about Rhiannon was disbelief. There had to be more to the story. Whole Foods cultivates such a wholesome, ‘we-care- about-your-health-and-well-being’ corporate image. They tout their charitable contributions. They refer to their workforce as ‘team members’. Why would they jeopardize their brand so cavalierly?
I looked for other new coverage, for statements from company officials. Perhaps Rhiannon had been a problem employee? Perhaps the termination had nothing to do with this particular absence? Maybe there were other, more serious offenses?
The answer? “Well, not really.”
Whole Foods has a point system at stores in the Midwest. An employee is allowed to accumulate five points every six months. ‘Unexcused absences’, (a slippery term at Whole foods, it seems), equal a point and incidences of tardiness equate to varying fractions of a point. Anyone accumulating more than five points within a six-month period is fired. Rhiannon had accumulated five points prior to the closing of schools that exceptionally cold day. According to Whole Foods they simply followed the policy. Rhiannon and her supporters insist her shift manager told her she understood Rhiannon’s situation and that the young mother should stay home with her son. Rhiannon assumed her situation fit the definition of ‘excused absence’.
But the real issue is not who said what, but the policy itself and the appalling lack of security and flexibility low income workers confront in the workplace.
Feminists have fought for decades for family friendly policies that reflect the realities of women’s lives. But success in areas of paid family and medical leave is dismal. Two thirds of workers receiving the minimum wage are women, but is rare for such jobs to offer a even a single paid sick day. Only three states, Rhode Island, New Jersey and California have legislated paid leave policies. Of course, the higher your salary, the greater your chances of working in a setting where paid leave for family emergencies is employer-provided or negotiable. Rhiannon’s story is illustrative of the larger issue. No wonder over 60,000 people across the country signed a petition demanding that Whole Foods reconsider their decision to terminate her employment.
Last December Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act. The legislation would set up a national paid leave insurance program funded by contributions from both workers and employers—each contributing 0.2 percent of wages. It is legislation that ought to command enthusiastic, bipartisan support. As numerous studies have shown, family friendly policies are not only good for workers, they can have positive effects for employers and the economy. For example, see here, here, here and here.
Women are the vast majority of primary caregivers for families and children. Thus it is women who pay the highest price when forced to choose between a paycheck and people we love who need our care. Whether through lost income, or fewer promotions or increased stress, women experience a large proportion of the negative effects a lack of family friendly policies produces. None of this is new news.
The United States is the only nation in the developed world that does not guarantee any type of paid leave. It is also a nation where ‘family values’ receive lots of airtime and political spin. There is no spin that can hide the reality: either many of those in positions of power are terribly ignorant of how the majority of Americans live or they simply don’t care about anyone outside their immediate social circle. Either way, it’s pretty discouraging. But action can be a good antidote for discouragement. To use language Whole Foods is comfortable with, let’s get on the team—the one working for passage of the FAMILY Act.