The presidential hopefuls are courting America’s working moms: They’re talking paid family leave, equal pay, affordable childcare—“common sense” provisions for “work-life balance” that, compared with the rest of the industrialized world, are shamefully overdue for the United States. If only corporate managers were so eager to please. The reality for working women looks less like a campaign ad and more like the legal complaints filed by two Pennsylvania workers last month against the country’s most powerful boss: Walmart.
The first, Victoria Eyler, sued Walmart in a Pennsylvania District Court claiming that the company had violated the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by denying her time off to care for her ailing mother, who was suffering from renal failure and coronary heart disease. She had sought unpaid leave, which the FMLA is designed to guarantee for roughly 60 percent of the workforce, to tend to her mother’s needs from fall of 2014 through March 2015. Although the store initially allowed her to take time off, according to the suit, she was pressured to return to work within a few weeks, and was eventually terminated by December.
The other, Rebecca Wolfinger of Shippensburg, claimed Walmart unfairly fired her in 2012 after a dispute over an arduous seven-day work schedule, and retaliated against her by charging her with misconduct involving a side job unrelated to Walmart.
According to Wolfinger, just two weeks before her dismissal, the store manager “required that Ms. Wolfinger work seven days a week, stating to her…that she needs to choose between her career and her kids.” Wolfinger noted that her male peers were not faced with a similar “ultimatum.”
The seven-day schedule imposed on Wolfinger was perhaps a catalyst for other workplace conflicts percolating below the surface. According to the lawsuit, however, Walmart claimed she was terminated over her alleged “refusal to cooperate in an investigation related to the sales of Pampered Chef”—a direct-marketing program she and some coworkers did as a side job. But Wolfinger says the Pampered Chef crackdown was just a vehicle for retaliation, and her friction with management was colored by longstanding tensions surrounding her struggle with “depression, anxiety and panic attacks.” Years earlier Wolfinger clashed with the store manager when he cited her mental-health condition in a performance evaluation, describing them, in condescendingly gendered terms, as “composure issues” and being “weak” at work and not able to control her “emotional issues.”
The subsurface tensions returned to haunt Wolfinger five years later, when she was called into a meeting in February 2012, in which the store manager and HR manager questioned her Pampered Chef activity. According to Wolfinger, the meeting triggered “hyperventilation, racing heart rate, and other symptoms of anxiety and panic attack,” prompting her to “[take] her prescription Xanax in front of her higher ups.” In a follow-up e-mail correspondence with the HR manager, she “referenced her anti-depressant medications.” She was advised that the store manager “would address her questions in a meeting the following day.” Within a few days, she was fired. The management could have engaged Wolfinger proactively, she claims—the suit argues she was entitled to “reasonable accommodations” such as providing a break or rescheduling the meeting. The seemingly arbitrary firing, Wolfinger argues, violated Americans with Disabilities Act protections.
Wolfinger’s HR nightmare was seemingly a perfect storm of toxic corporate culture plus insensitivity toward her family and medical situation. But her firing might have been prevented if her employer had upheld basic civil-rights protections. Similarly, Eyler’s suit centers around a longstanding workplace protection that Walmart should have respected, but allegedly just ignored. (Walmart has not yet responded to The Nation’s query regarding these cases.)
Both cases represent the retail industry’s pattern of degrading working conditions, which often leads to economic turmoil or even job loss when workers’ family needs clash with Walmart’s workplace policies, which subject workers to unstable schedules, low pay, and threadbare benefits.
Across the low-wage workforce, even the FMLA’s bare-minimal coverage (unpaid leave is clearly the least costly accommodation an employer can provide a worker during time off) just doesn’t work for those who need to work as much as possible. “The top reason why people don’t use the FMLA when they need it is because they can’t afford an unpaid leave,” says Vicki Shabo, vice president of National Partnership for Women and Families. Meanwhile, workers have even more limited access to the unicorn of work-family accommodations, paid family leave. According to National Partnership, “Only 13 percent of workers in the United States have access to paid family leave through their employers.”
Shabo sees the push for paid leave through legislation or by private employers coalescing with other campaigns surrounding workers’ family and social needs, such as protections against pregnancy-related discrimination and fair scheduling laws—all measures hotly debated on the campaign trail and sharply opposed by industry groups in Pennsylvania and beyond.
In the growing policy debate around “work-life balance,” Shabo says, “What you’re seeing is a push for wages, for paid time off, for fair schedules, for workers to have a voice in their workplace, and to have a greater sense of power.” Moreover, paid leave and fair schedules at work are both needed policies for those faced with the double-shift of caregiving and breadwinning. “All of these things intersect,” Shabo continues. “Obviously, if a family member is seriously ill and needs care, flexibility or predictability in your schedule…is very important, but so too is the ability to actually take a concentrated period of time off to…sit by somebody’s bedside or provide care after release from the hospital.”
Workplace power dynamics, not policy, ultimately determine how “family friendly” a job is. Without consistent enforcement of regulations, or support from a strong labor movement, workers are not economically empowered to invoke their rights to “balance” work and home life. Between a high-pressure management and a low-wage, precarious underling, work-life balance means a tightrope between the stress of an overbearing supervisor and the cries of a loved one who needs care at home. With no good options, every choice is a cruel trade-off, regardless of what the law says, or how you cast your vote.