The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Meeting of May 23, 2007 - Achieving Work/Family Balance: Employer Best Practices for Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities

Statement of Lisa Dodson, Research Professor, Boston College

Thank you Madam Chair, Madam Vice Chair, and Commissioners Ishimaru and Griffin for this opportunity to share my research on work & caregiving issues facing low-income families. My name is Lisa Dodson I am a research professor of sociology at Boston College and have spent the last 20 years teaching, doing research and publishing on the challenges and changing conditions of low-income families.

Let me start out by saying that the nature of my research approach is in depth and face-to-face. I try to spend extended, informal time with low-income parents and over the last eight years I have gathered information from hundreds working in the low-wage economy including small and very large retail stores, in hospitals, small local services, in hotels and other hospitality venues, in a wide array of eateries and food services, nursing care jobs; the low-wage jobs of the 21st century service economy.

This research approach however goes beyond the world of low-income families and seeks the insights of others who interact with working families, every day. I interview teachers, healthcare providers, small business employers, youth counselors, job supervisors in large service industry, ministers; the list is very long. These are people who also know a lot about job and caregiving problems in low-wage America.

For my comments today I draw out two challenges related to caregiving responsibilities that were identified by hundreds of both low-wage and middle class informants. I then put forward a central response and identify two indigenous or “ground up” practices used to reduce profound barriers to work gains that low-wage parents face (Dodson 2007).

Unsustainable incomes

The outstanding issue repeatedly identified by low-income parents and also by teachers, healthcare providers, and employers is that these parents do not have access to a sustainable income or a wage that allows them to maintain secure family care. I am of course aware that this body does not set wage standards and thus the tendency may be to push this issue off to the side. Yet this was identified as a root cause of many of the barriers to work, disruptions, and job losses undermining lower-income workers, particularly mothers, today.

As a woman working in Boston told me last year, “I leave my kids alone too much as it is…I need more hours… but they need me more. How do you choose?”

Inability to secure stable, market-based childcare

This first point leads to the next. Low-income parents and their employers point out that stable care for family is foundational for good job performance – and thus for the opportunity to excel at work and advance (Scott et al. 2001; Uttal 1996) We parents who can use market options such as: daycare center services, babysitters or au pairs, summer and vacation camps, after-school programs etc. enter a contractual arrangement or multiple arrangements for children’s care and safety. Or, we may negotiate ways within the family to reduce hours of work and be able to provide care ourselves, sometimes with considerable career losses (Williams 2000). It is never easy and how we go about caring for our children differs based on personal and family options and choices. Yet all of these rely on some form of purchasing power. While some childcare is publicly subsidized most routine, reliable, and safe care for the nation’s children is based on parental ability to pay for it. And is way out of reach for millions of working families.

Among many low-income families childcare arrangements are fragile, fluid and patchwork. They are not a routine but an orchestra of pieces that can so easily fall apart. Among the ways that parents reported that they try to manage job and care-giving through non-market or “free” strategies include:

All of these informal strategies have risks and losses associated with them.

The following is the account of one family that reflects the daily world of many. I met Norma four years ago in Milwaukee and at the time she had an eight and a five year old child. She lived alone with her children but their father is very involved in their lives and shares some expenses and care. This is a description of the children’s after-school routine.

Monday: A trustworthy neighbor picks the two children up after school – along with her own child – and they walk together to a local youth center, a few blocks from the school, where children’s activities offered for free. She comes back later to take them home, dropping the two off at their apartment or when she is up to it, bringing them to her own for the hour before Norma arrives, otherwise they will be home alone for about one hour.

Tuesday: Norma’s sister leaves work early on Tuesdays and on her way home she picks up the children at the school and takes them to her apartment and their mother picks them up at 8PM. This aunt is earning slightly over minimum wage and does not earn enough to feed extra children so they eat when they get home. Norma worries about how hungry they are by the time they are home.

Wednesday: The children take a public bus to their paternal grandmother’s apartment. She has advanced diabetes and difficulty walking so children have to do transportation alone. A teacher at the school generally tries to stand with them until the bus comes. Their father gets home at ten PM if he doesn’t take overtime. They are fed by their grandmother but do not get to bed until midnight, at the earliest. Norma worries about their exhaustion on these nights and how hard it is to get them up the next morning.

Thursday: Norma has no arrangement on Thursdays so the children play in the school playground until 4 to 4:30 (usually 1-1/2 hours, rain or shine) and then her sister accompanies them to their home; they are alone until 6 or 6:30.

Friday is Norma’s early day: She meets them right after school. “We live for Fridays…I won’t stay late no matter if they fire me.”

I want to emphasize that Norma’s situation was not extreme, in fact, as we review her plan there were five other adults who were in some way engaged in the care constellation she has created to try to hold onto her job and ensure her children are watched (with some holes in her coverage, at best). Relative to some other families I have known, Norma’s children have considerable adult attention. But sometimes her neighbor’s child is sick, so she does not take her child to the after-school program. And Norma’s sister is exhausted; carrying her own child home after work and finds picking up Norma’s children a real strain. And sometimes the teacher cannot remain with the children to wait for the bus on the busy city street. And sometimes their father works very late and so forth…. Norma pointed out that there are “a thousand ways” this house-of- cards can fall down, every day. And when it does Norma is held culpable both at her workplace and – should child protective services be called – for what would likely be considered child neglect (Roberts 1999).

Focusing exclusively on Norma’s opportunity to work, advance and lift her children as she goes, Norma faces systemic barriers. She is an undesirable employee, not because she is irresponsible nor does she have a dearth of work ethic, though she could certainly be seen that way. She is undesirable as a worker because she is engaged foremost as a mother. My years of research suggests that it is the Normas of the world who are most likely to experience parental discrimination in the labor market precisely because when their house of cards comes down, they act on the value that children come first and thus must treat jobs as coming second (Scott et al 2001; Oliker 2000; Dodson 2007).

Discrimination against parents who cannot afford to buy stable family care

Employers in my research frequently raise the problem of hiring and supervising low wage mothers. They describe the problem how mothers have poor “job-holding” ability because of a cascade of disruptions, snarls and backfilling strategies all associated with patchwork of care arrangements (Capizzano and Adams 2001). In one study of 120 jobs, half of all job-holders experienced some kind of sanction because they had work interruptions associated with unreliable and unsafe family care (Dodson, et al 2002; see Moss and Tilly 2001). The mothers interviewed experienced some kind of sanction associated with family care-taking needs, including firings, lost wages, being passed over for promotion, written and verbal warnings that accrue toward dismissal. Specifically supervisors spoke of great frustration – though often with compassion – about:

In fact many employers in this research expressed sympathy for hard-working parents and consternation about their predicament. “I couldn’t raise my kids on what she makes” was a common observation. Some others resorted to the familiar “blame the mother” approach; “it’s not my fault she went out and had kids” I have heard.

But more harmful than the stereotyping comments of individuals was a description of low-wage mothers as a whole, as “disorganized” and frequently, “they don’t have the work ethic that I was raised with….” So the beyond the immediate impact of individuals being sanctioned at work because they cannot buy care stable while they are at work, low-wage mothers become viewed as a class of deficient workers.

Preference for mothers without children

Recently I interviewed several nursing home directors who told me that they prefer to hire nurses aides who have left their children in their native or their parents’ native country, because as one put it,“they are not going to get a call to come home when a child is ill or to deal with something at school.” Mothers whose families are nearby and thus are reachable in times of family trouble are at risk of being seen as unreliable and thus may be treated as a less desirable class of workers when any others – who are without family care obligations -- are available.

As Joan Williams, a previous speaker to this Commission pointed out, all parents may face discrimination in the work place when they respond to family needs. But parents who cannot buy child care and other services to sustain families are vulnerable to a triple jeopardy. These mothers are, in effect, punished by specific work sanctions because they do not earn enough to gain access to stable, market-based solutions to their caregiving needs. Additionally, they may be treated as an undesirable class of workers because it is well known to employers that low wages undermine caregiving stability and thus job-holding capacity. And, if they substitute informal childcare arrangement – as Norma does – for unobtainable market services, they may break state child protective statutes as well.

Leveling the work opportunity playing field

1. All parents need to earn a sustainable income that allows them to join other families in America that have access to market-based safe, reliable and decent childcare so they are not systemically obstructed from whatever opportunities jobs may offer. Beyond this outstanding issue, some of the most responsive and workable practices come directly from the efforts of working parents, concerned employers and labor unions. Here are just two of these.

2. Self-scheduling or indigenous work flexibility is a practice demonstrated in a very large unionized health facility in NYC. On a particular unit, three shifts of low-income parents (largely mothers) meet monthly to design their schedules based on two imperative, quality care of patients in the facility and responsiveness to family care needs. Management has stepped away from top-down scheduling and since that time planning has improved “tremendously” and absenteeism has gone down, according to director. A one-size fits all approach to flexibility does not reflect the variation of family care needs and low-income parents must be a central voice in designing the approach to flexible work time, based on their family realities.

3. Another “ground-up” practice is exemplified in an after-school club in a large community center in Boston. Scores of employees’ children began coming to the center after school to wait for parents to get off work. Rather than reprimand the employees for the presence of children as work intrusions, a manager arranged for college students to come and provide homework help with children. He reports that fewer parents are leaving early, absenteeism has gone down and most important to this individual, parents have expressed their relief at knowing where their children are after-school. But it should be noted that this is a “below the radar” practice not openly sanctioned by the upper management and according to the manager who has been nurturing the program, underground, “things could fall apart any time.”

Final statement

Based on all of my work, I support the previously stated request to this Commission to set out definitions and promote guidelines on Family Responsibility Discrimination. But I must add that such definitions and guidelines must include the intractable barrier to employment opportunity that unsustainable earnings represent for one third of our working families that cannot use market solutions to family care needs.

Additional essential approaches & best practices

(Note: All identifying information has been excluded from all cases) Parent designed practices

Several mothers in the Boston area report choosing sales or food services work in large retail malls that have common space around which the many stores are located. They bring children with them -- or children take buses to these malls after school -- allowing the family to be in close proximity, much like playing on the village green. Unfortunately in many cases this kind of informal childcare is not permitted – the common space is supposed to be for customers and customers’ children, thus a level of secrecy is needed. Mothers have to find ways to periodically leave their work to check on children or in one case a mother had her children appear at the glass doors of a store every half hour to ensure they were safe.

Numerous mothers in Milwaukee and Boston described working in private homes – as domestics, personal care attendants or as home health aides – as a way to combine caring for a disabled, infirm or elderly person with caring for their own children. They bring children with them and set them up in a separate space – often using TV viewing to keep them busy – so that they are able to work and ensure children are being monitored simultaneously. In some case these mothers could obtain better employment but would be unable to integrate their family obligations into the structure of other jobs.

A group of mothers who clean city office buildings at night bring blankets, pillows and children with them, putting the children “to bed” and then moving them from one area to the next as they clean the floors.

Employer designed practices

An employer who is the manager of a casual-style restaurant chain in New England has entirely jettisoned the company rules about scheduling – but she does so “under the radar” of the senior management. The staff of 14 comes and goes throughout the shifts based on schools, childcare, doctors’ appointments, and so forth. One staff person brings her elderly aunt who sits at a table in the corner of the restaurant during slow periods. The manager has two sets of records – one that reflects the real schedule and another that the one the manager submits to the company office. She has been recognized as having the least turnover and the most loyal staff but does not divulge her practices.

A manager in a fast food restaurant feeds the children of employees when they come in after school saying, “They (employees) really don’t make enough so I help out where I can.” Another manager in a sales department of a large, low-end retail concern has created a system of rewarding employees with time off to attend to family obligations and events -- with pay -- that does not go down on company records.

The senior supervisor of a large non-profit allows employees to leave work for parts of workdays, without losing pay, to attend classes toward gaining better employment or to spend time with their children. He keeps a clandestine file of “time offs” to maintain equity but generally the employees discuss when and who should take time.

Discussion of these essential approaches & best practices

These “bottom-up” strategies to promote the ability of parents to care for their families are not everywhere; low-wage parents with whom I have spoken over the years have left jobs many times precisely because most low-wage work is rigid and family unfriendly, as well as low paid. Moreover, when mothers find a supervisor who cooperates with family responsibilities or find a workplace that is unionized and promotes a worker’s right to meet family responsibilities they are likely to hold fast to that job even if it does not offer opportunity to advance. Thus work as a route to career advancement may be obstructed by the need to hold onto jobs that allow parents to care for their families.

We have much more to learn about the best practices that are kept hidden

Most parent-designed practices are hidden from employers and from public scrutiny not only because mothers risk punitive sanction on the job but they also risk “trouble” with child protective services. Managers too are cautious about acknowledging the practices that they have designed because their own company or agency may be punitive to supervisors who take on some of the cost of workers’ family responsibility through allowing employee time off with pay, making the workplace flexible enough to permit the presence of children, or allowing a self-scheduling approach that is more complicated for the employment records and management, etc.

We have only started to uncover some of the remarkably creative and effective practices that come from those who are directly involved in the caregiving dilemmas of low-wage families. More work is needed to explore and illuminate the approach of sharing responsibility among parents, employers and labor organizations.


1. The research referred to in these remarks comes from studies sponsored by the Ford Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Commonwealth Fund and includes more than 800 people from across the country.

Specifically the studies included: At Harvard University , the Welfare in Transition Study that studied the experiences and insights of (150) parents who were coping with welfare reform and the Across the Boundaries that included 250 people including employers, low-wage workers, teachers and other human service professionals. The study took place in Boston, Milwaukee and Denver and followed the previous one now focusing on work and family lives. At Boston College, the Lower-Income Family and Work, a follow up to Across the Boundaries focusing on 60 individuals; their childcare arrangements, work flexibility and job losses and the Better Jobs/Better Care study that included low-wage careworkers and their supervisors (altogether 350 individuals) and the World of Careworkers 30 life story interviews in (2005).Current research includes study of Labor Management Program that includes low-wage careworkers and managers in 40 facilities in New York City, a collaborative study with Service Employees International Union funded through the Commonwealth Foundation.

2. Some effects of unstable care arrangements on children’s learning, based on data from teachers included:

3. At the time that I interviewed “Norma” we looked up the cost of available, local after-school cost for two children and -- not including summer camp costs – it was about $3,500. With market-based transportation to and from school was an additional $1,000. Norma’s income at the time was $27,000.

4. I want to express my appreciation to Lucie White for long discussions about the issues discussed in these remarks.


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