Today as I reviewed a potential case, the reality of conflicting needs became quite clear: a single parent (or a married parent with the other parent geographically distant) must leave work no later than a specific time each day in order to pick up a child staying at day care. The employer insists that the employee work overtime, often informing the employee "at the last minute" of a project requiring overtime. What if the employee refuses or resists the overtime because of the need to pick up her child, or face the prospect of a) losing her childcare services or b) her child being taken to "county child protective services" after a certain hour in accordance with the childcare provider's policies?
Here is the tension: We are in a society of numerous single parents as the sole providers, as well as two parent income households. We are sadly a society of geographically dispersed extended family members, such as grandparents, aunts, or uncles, to provide family support. Child care is underfunded, lacks high standards of training and quality, is often an underground "cottage industry" that goes unmonitored, and is difficult to find because having such low profit margins. Finding a decent, affordable child care center is difficult, and keeping one is important. Losing one, because of work demands, is a serious matter.
Employers on the other hand have a legitimate need to meet the demands of business through the use of paid overtime, rather than adding additional part time or full time employees. In a depressed economy, there are plenty of workers available to work overtime because one parent remains "at home," they either have no parental duties, or have better child care options than single or separated parents. So, do we just let those single parents be ground under by the demands of an intransigent employer who can see no further than the immediate need to work the overtime?
Questions like these are the classical political debate between libertarians and free market advocates, on the one hand and liberal, social engineering proponents on the other hand. The hypocrisy of course is that for decades both political parties have been pounding the "family values" drum during political campaigns.
The truth, I feel, is in the Aristolean ideal of the "golden mean." That is, neither a purely libertarian nor a purely socialistic solution is sensible. The truth is to be found in the right balance of government and free enterprise.
There is a need to support business by encouraging "family friendly" approaches. A business that attracts parents because it offers work scheduling compatible with the need to pick up children by a set time after work will actually act in its self-interest. Sometimes nothing more is needed than a pro-active attempt to schedule people around their family life requirements. A dictatorial "tops down" management style forecloses the kind of "win-win" solutions that employees can provide by including them in the decision process. A parent, for example, may be able to work overtime two or three days a week, but not other days. Dialogue and cooperation can result in a coordinated employee schedule that meets the demands of all days of the week.
The alternative, if the need for flexible scheduling is not being met, is to call for state legislation that prohibits an employer from requiring overtime of an employee if that overtime would result in the parent being unable to pick up his or her child from a daycare provider before that provider closes for business. The law obviously would also need to foreclose discrimination or retaliation against an employee or applicant for employment who needed such scheduling of his or her workday.
This kind of legislation is not currently "on the books" in California or the federal government. I am not sure it should be. Yet, knowing the struggles of being single parent, the "child care dilemma" is one employers should view sympathetically or potentially face new laws requiring scheduling flexibility.