Trade-offs are an inescapable part of life. The sad truth is, it's impossible to both eat your cake and have it too. Unfortunately, far too many of our policy debates try to pretend that it is possible to have everything at once. Politicians follow their instincts and promise to give voters everything the voters want. But all of the promises in the world can't abolish life's fundamental trade-offs.
What am I talk about? Let me illustrate. Lately, a debate has been raging in legal and political circles about a clash between family life and work. Employers still expect employees to put in a 40-hour work week, occurring mostly between 8am and 5pm. An increasing number of employees want to work odd schedules, work from home, or take large amounts of time off to care for ailing family members. As a result, these employees are being passed over for promotion, denied raises, or being outright fired.
Family-Leave Values - New York Times
Since the mid-1990s, the number of workers who have sued their employers for supposed mistreatment on account of family responsibilities "” becoming pregnant, needing to care for a sick child or relative "” has increased by more than 300 percent.
... Williams argued that the growing tension between work and family was not simply a product of economic necessity. It stemmed, rather, from a marketplace structured around an increasingly outdated masculine norm: the "ideal worker" who can work full time for an entire career while enjoying "immunity from family work." At a time when both adults in most families had come to participate in the labor force, Williams argued that this standard was unrealistic, especially for women, who remained the primary caregivers in most households.
This New York Times article is fairly typical of the debate. It's heavily anecdotal and hard to excerpt. (If you want the human stories behind the rhetoric, click through and read the full article.)
The article starts by telling the story of Karen Deonarain. Karen worked for a small company as a full-time employee. When she went through a tough pregnancy (and gave birth 16 weeks early), she informed her employer that she'd need four months off to recover, before coming back to work. Her employer ended up firing her.
The article continues on, talking about the difficulties that Karen Deonarain now faced. I'd like to stop and focus on the difficulties her employer faced. Her employer was small -- less than 50 employees. This would tend to indicate that each employee was important and the work that Karen Deonarain was valuable. Karen informed her employer that she didn't intend to do any work for more than a fourth of the year. What was her employer to do?
A job had been left unfilled. Work needed to be done, by someone. Ms. Deonarain was unable to do it, so the company would need to hire someone new. It's hardly a good idea to spend time finding and training a new employee, only to lay them off when the former employee decides to return to work. It's also not fair to expect someone else at the company to cover the job until Ms. Deonarain was ready to return.
Here's the trade-off: businesses offer generous pay and benefit to those that can show up and get work done. Men and women who expect to take lots of time off whenever they have a family problem are not showing up and getting the job done. Is it so unfair then, that businesses wouldn't offer these people generous pay and benefits?
If workers aren't contributing something of value to the company, why should the company have a responsibility to contribute something of value to the workers? The job market is a two-way street: workers work for pay, employers pay for work. If workers expect to start and stop working on a whim, they shouldn't be surprised when employers expect to start and stop paying just as quickly.
This isn't a matter of discrimination and shouldn't be covered by state or federal anti-discrimination laws. This is a matter of fulfilling your obligations as an employee. Being a parent -- or a responsible son or daughter -- doesn't magically absolve someone of their responsibilities to their employer.
There will always be a trade-off between work and family. Lower wages and less stable jobs are an inevitable consequence of choosing to work fewer hours on an unstable schedule.