A majority of women work outside the home, yet workplace policies have not caught up the new reality, say Latina advocates. (Photo/Getty Images )

Workplace policies are failing working moms, say Latina advocates

Are we doing enough to help Latina moms juggle work and family? Or is the idea that we have “family-friendly” work policies just talk – or as a Spanish expression goes, “de la boca pa’ fuera?”

“Nearly 12 million Latinos – almost 60 percent of the Hispanic workforce, have no access to a paid sick day,” says Leticia Mederos, vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. “That means if you have a sick baby with an ear infection, a Latina mom might have to choose between taking the baby to the doctor or losing her job,” Mederos adds.

The latest national “watercooler conversation” has been the record-breaking response to an online article in The Atlantic on how hard it is to balance work and family. The article was written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first woman Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and a high-ranking official at the State Department. Slaughter wrote that even for affluent and educated women like herself, the current workplace situation does not accomodate for the realities facing working parents.

For Latino families, says Leticia Mederos, this national conversation is even more urgent. “The policies need to catch up to the reality that Latina women are increasingly the family breadwinners,” she says. “Yet we have public policies which reflect a man’s world and are not reflective of today’s economy.”

The majority of families now rely on two incomes – over sixty percent of Latinos with children under 18 are in the labor force. Latinos who work in big companies (more than 50 people) are allowed by law to take up to three months of unpaid leave to care for a newborn or sick family member. Yet 54 percent of Latinas and 60 percent of Latinos work in smaller businesses or occupations which give no paid sick days.

So what happens when a parent takes half a day or a day to care for a sick child? Nearly one in six workers report they or a family member have been fired, threatened or written up, according to a  National Partnership for Women and Families report.

Policy analysts like Mederos say there is a disconnect between what Latino families need – and want – and current government policies. 75 percent of Latinos support a federal law that would provide a paid sick days standard. The Healthy Families Act is a bill which calls for 7 job-protected sick days a year for businesses with more than 15 employees. Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solís has come out in favor of the legislation, but it has been stalled in Congress. Critics of the bill say forcing small companies to have paid sick days places too much of a burden on small companies. Mederos disagrees.

“Some employers might be good corporate citizens, but most employers are focusing on the bottom line and are not going to voluntarily provide standards, especially for low-income Latino workers,” she says.

The other big issue facing working Latino families is child care. Jessica González-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, recently had a baby.

“I am experiencing first-hand how expensive and inflexible daycare is,” says González-Rojas. “It costs the equivalent of rent in some places, and they close at 6pm, which does not work for many of us,” she adds.

González-Rojas finds that most of the women “in her circle” rely on the decades-old “Latino standby” – family. “Most of my friends are relying on their mothers, grandmothers or tías to help care for their children,” she says. This is not an option for families whose parents are either far away, are sick or have to work.

Once children are in school, González-Rojas says, it does not get any better. “We are starting to look at our neighborhood school options, and one pre-school ends at noon. What working parent can pick up a kid then?” she says. In fact, one of the recommendations in The Atlantic article is to extend the school day to be more in line with parental working hours.

Recently the Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor held meetings across the country on the need for more workplace flexibility. In The Atlantic article, Slaughter urged companies to start by doing simple things. She calls for allowing more women to attend meetings via teleconference instead of traveling, and for making it easier for women to work from home.  More importantly, Slaughter urges women – and men – to stop apologizing for having to attend a school meeting or a doctor appointment.

Is advocating for more workplace flexibility pie in the sky?  Not really, according to recent reports.  A 2011 study by the Families and Work Institute showed a positive correlation between flexible working conditions and employee retention, health and job engagement.

Latina policy analysts like González-Rojas and Mederos say the burden for family care and childcare still falls disproportionately on women. Yet instituting family-friendly policies such as paid family and medical leave would benefit everyone, they argue.

“Parenting should not be a ‘mother’ issue,” says González-Rojas. “Given our economic situation, we should understand that implementing ‘family friendly’ policies helps more than moms – it also helps single dads, same-sex couples, and most importantly, it helps all of us raise healthier children and communities,” she says. “It should not be a partisan issue, but a national issue.”


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