Breeder Blues

President Clinton and Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd are preparing legislation that will make it illegal for employers to discriminate against parents. According to the Washington Post, the idea is to build on “the popular Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires unpaid time off for workers tending to newborn, sick, or newly adopted children.” Chatterbox thinks the Family and Medical Leave Act was a good law, but that a Don’t Discriminate Against Parents Act would be a bad law (albeit one that probably polls well).

“[E]mployers often falsely assume that employees with parental responsibilities are not capable of performing as well as their co-workers without children,” Chatterbox is informed by a fact sheet describing the bill (the precise legislative language has not yet been made public). “Parents balancing responsibilities at home and at work should be valued, not discriminated against.” Let’s run through that logical sequence again. 1.) Employers are wrong when they think parents cut corners on the job in order to tend to their kids’ needs. 2.) But when parents do cut corners on the job to tend to their kids’ needs, their bosses should give them some slack. Anybody see a contradiction?

Chatterbox, who is the father of two small children, thinks that having children really does adversely affect the amount of time you can spend on work, especially if you’re a woman, and most especially if you’re a single parent. Sure, juggling responsibilities can teach you to be more efficient, but there are only 24 hours in the day. If you don’t want your work to suffer at all, your best options are either not to become a parent or to resolve to be a really bad parent who spends little or no time with your kids. (This option has traditionally been more readily available to men than to women.) Happily, most parents end up concluding that raising kids is worth a sacrifice in work output. No doubt a few of them suffer for it, losing out at promotion time to nonparents or bad parents (though possibly reaping commensurate benefits in overall life fulfillment). But that’s hardly discrimination.

In fact, if there’s a conspiracy afoot in the workplace regarding parenthood, it’s probably the way bosses, in this family-friendly age, try as much as possible to look the other way whenever their employees lose productivity due to becoming parents. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious is self-interest; quite a few bosses are themselves parents, and have little interest in drawing attention to the ways parenthood scatters their own attention. Another is the sheer number of parents out there: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 36 percent of the labor force in 1997, the last year for which data are available, had one or more children under the age of 18. That’s a lot of people to discriminate against. Yet another reason is creeping decency: The women’s movement has made it far less socially acceptable than it used to be for employers to assume a W.C. Fields-like curmudgeonly stance toward children. Whether they mean it or not, corporations are always boasting about the ways they encourage their employees to spend time with their children. To be sure, bosses probably cut low-income workers a lot less slack on family obligations, just like they cut low-income workers less slack on everything else. The solution, however, is not to create a new class of potential litigants, most of whom are sure to be crybaby white-collar workers (because they have the most ready access to lawyers). It’s to formulate policies that help, well, low-income people. But those probably wouldn’t poll nearly as well.

–Timothy Noah