I interviewed Phoebe Taubman, who is an Equal Justice Works Fellow and project attorney at A Better Balance, a New York City based non profit organization. A Better Balance is “helping to draft government legislation and influence corporate change on policies such as paid sick leave, paid family leave, and more flexible workplaces. A paid-sick-leave law the organization drafted for the city of Milwaukee passed by a landslide this fall. A Better Balance also drafted six of the seven state sick-leave bills introduced this year.”
Taubman’s work focuses particularly on low-income workers, those employed by small businesses, or those who do not have the weight of a large organization behind them. She and I began by discussing how media coverage of notable corporate efforts to create flexible work practices has paved the way for a lot of innovative policy and public awareness- but there’s still much work to be done among small businesses and in the states.
Taubman: “I found out about this organization I work with because of articles in the press I read about corporate efforts. I think that generally what’s been covered [in the media is] ‘…this company does great things,’ or ‘professional women demand this from their employers.’ But it’s not just professionals. It’s not just women. It’s workers who don’t have as much bargaining power vis a vis their employers or in the way of a financial safety net to rely on if a family emergency strikes.
Do you find using corporations as “model citizens” is an effective example when you’re talking to small businesses?
“It’s important to have model citizens because I think they can be influential with policymakers when policymakers say, “well, we can’t do these things with paid sick days because it will be a real burden on small business.” I think it’s really important to have the corporate citizens to say, ‘actually this is really good for our bottom line because we have loyalty, we retain people, we don’t have to lose somebody and retrain a replacement. We don’t have sick people coming to work and getting others sick, we don’t have people lying to us and taking a sick day when in fact it’s their kid,’ because how much does that happen! I think ultimately what we’re trying to do is affect a cultural shift. As a lawyer I’ve definitely seen the law can be powerful but it’s a blunt instrument, ultimately. And so, we need to approach the problem from multiple directions in order to be successful.
“Big businesses have better margins and they can afford to do a lot more. [To expand the kind of companies that offer benefits] it’s really about businesses speaking to businesses and smaller businesses speaking out. It’s important to get businesses with similar scope to talk to each other. We just had a campaign in New York City requesting paid sick days. We had small businesses speak out, restaurant owners, because we were anticipating that opposition. We had a high-end restaurant from the West Village, and a restaurant owner from Queens. If only big businesses are seen as model citizens, when it comes to public policy, the effect is often to carve out small business as a compromise. For example, FMLA only applies to employers with 50 or more employees in a 75-mile radius. A majority of Americans work for businesses with fewer than 50 employees, so a lot of people fall through the cracks. And it’s sort of a go-to legislative compromise [to carve out small businesses], without thinking about the fact that many employees, especially low-income workers, largely work for small employers and are particularly vulnerable. They need these resources to remain attached to the workforce in the case of a family emergency or other responsibilities at home.
“It’s one reason we’re working on the state level around the country on paid sick days and on paid family leave. In New York, the idea is to build off of temporary disability insurance for the paid family leave program. And TDI has no carve out- it applies for employers who have one or more people. If you expand from TDI you’re covering everyone. Now, the nitty gritty is if you cover everyone for benefits but you only have job protection for those who work for employers with 50 or more employers (because of FMLA), in reality people could take leave and have some paid wage replacement but still be subject to demotion or firing because they wouldn’t be job protected. I think Federal carve outs leave out a lot of people who need the protection of the law.
What are some interesting things happening on the state level?
“Paid Family Leave is something that’s really bubbling up at the state level. California was the first to do it in 2004. And then Washington State passed a bill but they haven’t figured out how to fund it. New Jersey just did it last year and it went into effect on July 1st. In New York the last few years we’ve gotten quite close, but it’s been a bad year for legislation!
“But I think in the states, especially those that have a temporary disability program already, which is only five, they have the infrastructure there. The real challenge is for states that don’t have that infrastructure in place. Like Washington State or New Hampshire, where they have to figure out how to pay for it. There was an interesting article by Heather Boushey from the Center for American Progress that introduced this doing something like this idea nationwide, funded by social security.
“Another idea that came over from the UK is called a soft touch or “right to request” law. This gives employees the right to request a flexible work arrangement. Their employer would have to consider the request and give them a written response. They are free to deny it, but they have to explain why formally. The idea would be, especially in an economy like this one, people who may need a flexible work arrangement may be afraid to ask for it because of all the stigma around flexibility, and they don’t want to be seen as a disposable person or not committed to their work. So the law gives people the confidence to ask there would be an anti-retaliation provision that would prevent employers from taking some sort of negative action against someone simply for asking for flexible work. It’s a nice idea for any time, but particularly in a recession because there’s not a huge cost element. But we’ve sort of dabbled in that in a few places but it hasn’t taken off yet. And there’s a federal bill, a Carolyn Maloney bill, modeled on the UK version. [Note, see the Working Families Flexibility Act, HR 1274. Ellen Galinsky testified at a recent hearing with Rep. Maloney].
“Another issue we’ve been thinking a lot about is the problem of part-time penalties. It’s an issue for those who choose to work part time to balance family responsibilities but there are plenty of people in this economy who have to work part-time, or even two part time jobs. And when people are forced to rely on part-time work for their income, it’s pretty appalling that they are treated so differently and have so little in the way of workplace security. [Phoebe's colleague Nina Bakst has written on this, see here].
“The overarching theme we’re trying to communicate is we need to value the work of caring, wherever it happens and who ever is doing it. These policy ideas are designed to support those who are giving care. Because it’s so essential and it’s really valuable to us as a society but unfortunately we tend to view it as a personal issue and make people deal with it on their own.”