Family values in the workplace

Last Sunday’s issue of the New York Times Magazine contains an article by Eyal Press which explores the emerging legal issue of how and when an employer can fire an employee for taking family leave, either for the employee’s health concerns or because the employee is acting as a caregiver for a family member.

The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act supposedly guarantees unpaid leave to employees with such serious health problems. But the law doesn’t cover employers with fewer than 50 people (which includes most churches), and it doesn’t cover caregivers.

On the other hand, an increasing number of former employees have successfully sued their employers after being terminated during unpaid medical leave. One scholar, Joan C. Williams, a professor at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, argues in her book Unbending Gender that offering unpaid leave is a feminist issue. The article by Press summarizes her argument:

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 It stemmed, rather, from a marketplace structured around an increasingly outdated masculine norm: the “ideal worker” who can work full time for an entire career while enjoying “immunity from family work.”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.

I would argue that most Unitarian Universalist congregations structure their ministry positions around this “increasingly outdated masculine norm” of the worker who can “work full time… while enjoying ‘immunity from family work’.” On a practical level, many (most?) congregations expect their ministers to work fifty to sixty hours a week (while being paid for forty hours), presumably under the unspoken assumption that if the minister has children, there will be another spouse to take care of them. On the legal level, often this outdated masculine norm is implicit in the contracts signed by ministers. By contrast, Directors of Religious Education often find themselves with flexible jobs that allow lots of freedom for caring for children — not surprising, since religious education is still seen as “women’s work.”

It would be an interesting exercise to examine one’s own congregation for this outdated masculine norm. What if the sexton needs family leave — will it be available? Are flextime and flexi-place available to every employee whenever possible? What sort of norms do employee contracts embody? Do all employees have access to unpaid medical leave? In a denomination where the feminist revolution still isn’t finished, I suspect this is now one of our most important feminist battlefields.

4 thoughts on “Family values in the workplace

  1. James Field

    As someone who is a fairly active family person, I have worried about this often. I know that I suffered some consequences in a previous job because I tended to spend my time off with my family instead of socializing with people from work. In my last year at that job virtually all the union representation I was involved in for my coworkers involved attempts to nickel and dime people out of paid leave to care for family members under a Catastrophic Sick Leave Bank.

    I know that I have delayed my completion of seminary at least in part to be more available to my family. And I know that it will only get worse as I move into parish ministry.

  2. Phil on the Prairie

    You’ve nailed it, Dan. The current model of ministry is stilled based on the Father Knows Best/Leave It to Beaver notion of family. Both my partner and I reduced our work hours to three quarters time when our son was born, and we both got some parental leave. The UUA and the Prairie Star District have been very supportive of me doing this, but I wonder how many congregations would go for it.

  3. Comrade Kevin

    Having just left a job in the corporate world, I saw firsthand how difficult it is to navigate FMLA and short-term disability. Earlier this year, due to an unforseen illness, I had to go on disability. Had I not been pro-active and educated enough to know how to work the system I would have found myself without a job and up a certain creek without a paddle. I had to be employed for six months before I was eligible for short-term pay. For two months, I was on unpaid medical leave. To be eligible for FMLA, I had to be employed a minimum of one year.

    The power of Unions has been curtailed severely over the years, to the point that the Union I belonged to existed merely as window dressing. With the rise of corporate consolidation and outsourcing jobs overseas, union are merely a shadow of their former selves. It will take a brand new model and approach to allow them to regain their clout in today’s workplace.

    The Union I belonged to had no real bargaining power and existed merely as a social club. The most power we ever had, other than to spread gossip and innuendo, was the ability to wear red shirts on Thursdays. Give me a break.

    I really wish I could have my union dues back.

    It is admirable that Obama wants to strengthen unions but until the Taft-Hartley bill is overturned (which would take an overwhelming Democratic Congress and a Democratic President) and we curtail the power of corporate America, unions will continue to lose more and more clout.

    Speaking purely on UU matters, the full-time minister we had in Birmingham often took a week per month out of the pulpit. But in her defense, she wasn’t using that week as a chance for R&R. She was often preaching at other churches, at demonstrations, or participating in other methods of social justice.

    The interim minister was in the pulpit far more often, but we were always quick to give him the occasional week off every few months so that he could visit his family in Kansas. I feel for the interim minister–it’s a tough, often thankless job.

    In Atlanta, the interim minister was in the pulpit about the same amount of time as the Birmingham full-time minister. I don’t know what he was up to on his off-weeks, but I do know that we allowed him the ability to go home to San Francisco periodically.

    I still think that we let ministers and church leaders on payroll (i.e. DRE and administrative staff) off a bit too easy. I’m of the opinion that our primary responsibility ought to be towards the poor, and I often believe that churches ought to be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

    That being said, I don’t want to be insensitive to the needs of clergy and paid staff. Most of them are industrious and hard working and they have to wear so many different hats that aren’t at all in the job description.

  4. Administrator

    James — Some congregations are fairly understanding about family demands.

    Phil — glad to know the PSD is realtively enlightened.

    Comrade Kevin — You write: “I still think that we let ministers and church leaders on payroll (i.e. DRE and administrative staff) off a bit too easy. I’m of the opinion that our primary responsibility ought to be towards the poor, and I often believe that churches ought to be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” — Maybe your congregation does let your staff off easy, I don’t know. But I know that many ministers and DREs work far more hours than they get paid for, often with inadequate benefits. On average, UU churches do not treat their staff well — most of us work in churches because we love the work, but I could go into the non-profit sector or back into the for-profit sector and make lots more money with much better benefits for an equivalent level of responsiblity. Something that churches can offer (which costs them nothing) is a good set of benefits like flex-time, flexi-place, unpaid family leave, etc. — and offering those benefits sets a good example of the kind of world we would like to see, where workers can be good family members too.

    As for churches having a primary responsibility for the poor, I respectfully submit that churches are terribly inefficient at delivering services to the poor. In terms of delivering services to the poor, churches have unnecessary and expensive things like church buildings, ministers, and DREs. If you really want to help the poor, I’d say the best thing to do is to quit your church and give your time and money to a good secular social service agency that helps. I’m really quite serious! However, I would argue that churches have a broader mission in the world that encompasses far more than poverty relief — like, for example, promoting real family values in the workplace — that makes it worth supporting them.

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