Companies, Courts, and Cancer OH MY
Will you have to care for a sick loved one someday? Will your employer let you?
Until recently, many of us twentysomethings were quite certain that we were invincible. Perhaps the only ones who now definitively know better are those fallen young analysts among us. Alas, in these tough economic times, some of us have succumb— gracefully, no doubt— to that catchy “last one hired, first one fired” refrain. Well, at least you still have your dashing good looks and your health, eh?
But what about your parents? I’ve recently begun thinking about mine.
My mom is a sprightly 45; she’s gone through a mid-life crisis slash makeover, walks religiously and eats organic, darling. My dad is a 61-year-old trapped in a 45-year-old’s body. He hasn’t touched a drop of booze in 20 years (had a lifetimes share back in the Motherland), doesn’t smoke or even drink coffee, and can be seen darting back and forth in his pool year-round. Unfortunately, absolutely none of these enviable habits are even a remote guarantee that my parents will remain in good health.
Which is why my heart skipped a beat when I came across an article bluntly entitled “Company Not Obliged to Allow Employee to Work at Home to Care for Mother with Cancer Under the ADA” in the Labor Relations Bulletin.
The sad facts: a single parent whose mother was diagnosed with cancer asked her employer if she could work from home in order to be able to care for her sick mother and young child. The request was denied and eventually she was fired for excessive absenteeism. The woman sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and Oklahoma public policy. The court ruled (Melton v. Farmers Insurance Group) that though they were “not unmoved” by the plaintiff’s situation, the company was not guilty of discrimination under those laws.
Whatever the legal intricacies of this particular case (and with one humbling semester of Con Law under my belt, I will bow out of that discussion, thank you), there is obviously a far greater issue here. In the United States, there is no law that requires employers to provide you with sick days, let alone allow you take sick days in order to care for ill family members. Not so, in many European countries. But even this glaring hole in our system of social protections doesn’t quite get to the heart of the matter. When push comes to shove, how far should employers have to go to accommodate their employees' family responsibilities?
To me, it seems that it would be more fruitful for Farmers to have granted the plaintiff’s request. This employee would have been far more productive if the employer let her work from home, rather than costing the company by being absent. Farmer's could have gained a grateful, eternally loyal employee to boot. But how far should the law go in regulating employer actions? Can you really legislate flexibility?
Certainly, employers should be free to run their companies as they see fit. But what if they prefer not to hire Asians or lesbians or balding men? We have laws against that. (Okay, maybe not for bald guys). Laws are extremely important in our country; companies fear lawsuits and jurisprudence often shapes our norms. I believe, however, that we can’t rely on the legal system to solve these issues. The public, employees, you, me— we all need to make it known to the government and employers that we demand and deserve certain workplace protections. If I was in the position of having to care for a sick parent, a situation I have no control over, mind you, I would want the option of leave and of alternative work arrangements— wouldn’t you?
The problem is that especially for us youngins, it is difficult to foresee these situations and it is perhaps even more difficult to make demands (“first one hired, first one fired,” remember?).
But it is not impossible. I'm thankful for organizations like MomsRising that present us with opportunities to actually take action on important work-family issues. Now, we need to spread these opportunities to more and more people.
The Lattice Group, a grassroots non-profit that aims to get young people to engage in a public dialogue on the issues that arise when trying to balance work, family, and personal responsiblities in a globalized world, looks forward to doing our part. If you have any ideas, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
"Company Not Obliged to Allow Employee to Work at Home to Care for Mother with Cancer Under the ADA." Fair Employment Practices Guidelines. 1/1/2009. Labor Relations Bulletin. Issue 644, p3-4.