As one of my colleagues wrote earlier this fall, a woman should not have to choose between having a job and having a baby. Laura Brown agrees. With Keira McNett, Laura founded First Shift Justice Project earlier this year to protect workers in their “first shift”—their paid employment—so they can work the “second shift”—providing unpaid care for family members. As a lawyer who represents several women who suffer discrimination on the basis of their gender, pregnancy and caregiver status, I was particularly interested in this effort and was excited to talk with Laura about the organization.
Kate: What is the goal of First Shift Justice Project?
Laura: Our vision is really to change the dialogue in American workplaces surrounding workers with family responsibilities.
Kate: How is it that you want to change the dialogue?
Laura: In this country, we can’t even have a real conversation in the workplace about family responsibilities. We celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day every year and of course in a vacuum no one would say that being a mother or a father is a problem. But the truth is that having family responsibilities is something that is treated as shameful in the workplace.
As just one small and relatively minor example, I am embarrassed to tell people that I cannot have meetings during certain times because I pick up my kids after school. I know it is ridiculous that I get embarrassed—I work plenty of hours, just not at that particular time in the afternoon. Despite technological advances that enable people to work anywhere, anytime, there is still this concept in our country that the ideal worker must be available from nine-to-five. But, really, most people with caregiver commitments outside of work will not fit perfectly inside this window.
Through First Shift Justice Project, we hope to change the way employers react to workers with family responsibilities and to change the way workers themselves behave by empowering them to assert their right to be free from family responsibilities discrimination.
Kate: What do you mean by family responsibilities discrimination?
Laura: At First Shift Justice Project, we define family responsibilities discrimination broadly because, in our experience, anyone who has another family member to take care of is seen differently in the workplace. In particular, there is a stereotype among employers that women who are mothers are less competent, less committed, and less ambitious than other workers. We want to combat those stereotypes.
Kate: How will First Shift Justice Project work to combat these stereotypes?
Laura: We aim to give workers, particularly low-wage workers, tools to assert their rights in the workplace so they can maintain their employment and balance their family commitments.
Kate: Can you talk more about First Shift Justice Project’s commitment to low-wage workers in particular?
Laura: A large percentage of low-wage workers are single parents, and a large percentage of those workers are women. While working parents at all income levels have struggles, there is a double whammy for moms in low-wage jobs because these jobs are so much less flexible and less likely to be accommodating. And if these single moms working low-wage jobs are fired because of their family responsibilities, their families are more likely to go without basic needs, including housing, food, and health care.
Kate: You mentioned earlier that advances in technology enable many of us to work anytime, anywhere, and thus employers should not expect everyone to fall within a nine-to-five model. That works for people who work in jobs like yours and mine, but what about people who have other kinds of jobs? What about the grocery store cashier or the restaurant server?
Laura: Right – not everyone can “work from home.” But there are practices that all employers can use to help workers with family responsibilities, even those workers with less-flexible jobs. For example, many workers in low-wage jobs do not have consistent schedules and often do not know the hours they will be working until the week – or even the day – before. It’s very rare that people have an affordable child care provider on standby who can fill in at a moment’s (or even a day’s) notice, so this can make it impossible for these workers to arrange child care. Even those workers who must be on site to do their jobs can benefit from basic changes in workplace practices.
As another example, it technically might not be discriminatory for an employer to mandate that a worker arrive on time when her children are sick or her child care has fallen through. However, these kinds of issues are often surmountable and we hope to help workers talk with their employers about solutions that benefit both employees and employers. Employers need a dependable, qualified and consistent workforce; employees need a source of steady income. We want to educate workers about their options and rights. Not so they can demand of their employers “dammit, it’s my right to show up late to work,” but so they say “here’s my issue and let’s think through ways we can deal with this together.”
Kate: According to your website, “the mission of First Shift Justice Project is to prevent family responsibilities discrimination by educating, empowering, and providing legal assistance to low-wage workers who struggle to balance work and family obligations.” Were you motivated to start First Shift Justice Project by any specific instance of discrimination that you believe could have been avoided through worker education?
Laura: Before starting First Shift Justice Project I had lots of contacts with low-wage workers suffering from discrimination. I remember one woman in particular who could have benefited from education about her rights. When her employer learned she was pregnant, her supervisor told her she should go on leave immediately, even though she was perfectly able to continue her job working on an assembly line. She followed her employer’s instructions and went on leave. She was unaware of her rights. She did not know she did not have to take leave simply because she was pregnant and her employer told her to. She did not know of her right to take a certain amount of job-protected leave when she had her child. And she did not know that taking leave prematurely could affect her ability to return to work. She, like many other low-wage workers, assumed she had no rights and relied on her employer’s representations.
After she had her baby, her employer told her that she could not come back to work. She no longer had a job. Had she sought legal counsel before going on leave, we could have aided her in communicating with her employer on the front end, and she would not have felt forced into leaving work prematurely and could have ensured her job was protected to the extent required by law. Had she come to us earlier, we could have walked her through the process of informing her employer of her pregnancy and educated her so she could know her rights going into the conversation.
Kate: I represent several women who suffered discrimination on the basis of their pregnancy or caregiving responsibilities. One client had her salary cut at KPMG by $20,000 when she was on maternity leave. [Blogger’s Note: This woman is Donna Kassman, whom we’ve written about several times on this blog.] Another client was told by Merck that she did not get the ranking she deserved because of “the timing of her baby.” These women knew their rights and raised concerns with the companies, but the companies failed to do anything to fix or even address this discrimination. Is this the kind of discrimination that you think could be prevented with worker education?
Laura: These situations you describe involve professional woman, who are often more likely than workers in low-wage jobs to know their rights and more comfortable sitting down with their employers. It sounds like they both told their employers that the conduct was illegal—at that point you’re beyond the preventative phase of the process. Our focus in First Shift Justice Project is women in low-wage jobs who don’t even get to step one. They don’t know that under the Family Medical Leave Act they are entitled to take leave and get their jobs back. They don’t know that their employers cannot cut their hours from 40 per week to 30 per week when they return. They do not have the knowledge necessary to empower them to assert their rights. They are often afraid, particularly if they have language or education barriers. We want to have women be like the women you mentioned, who know their rights and are empowered to have respectful conversations. Then, if their efforts fail down the road they are in a better position to take legal action. We see our services as both preventative and anticipatory of litigation.
I’m excited about the great work Laura is doing through First Shift Justice Project. To learn more about the organization and its efforts to prevent discrimination, check out the organization’s website. To learn more about my work at Sanford Heisler in representing women who have already suffered discrimination, check out my firm bio.