For Shenita Simon-Toussaint, all that stands between having—on the one hand—a roof over her head, food on the table, and at least a cake for each of her three children’s birthdays, and—on the other hand—abject poverty, is her $8-per-hour salary at a Brooklyn KFC. It’s a precarious existence that makes keeping her job vital. Although food stamps help, that wage has to stretch far enough to support herself, her children, and her unemployed husband.
Yet her job, with its rigid schedule—not uncommon for hourly workers like herself—is not one in which she feels at all secure, especially when trying to juggle the demands of her family with those of her employer. Simon-Toussaint worries about her job because of incidents like the time when her husband had a job interview, leaving them without childcare. She had to stay home until he returned. By the time she arrived at work, she was several hours late for her shift and she said her manager told her to go back home. Simon-Toussant lost the entire day’s wages.
“It’s literally hanging by a thread,” said the 26-year-old of her position as a shift supervisor. “They remind you on an hourly basis that you are replaceable.
“If we lose $8 an hour, we have no shelter, no food, and no clothes to wear,” she said, sitting in her living room furnished with thrift-store finds and hand-me-downs in a Brownsville, Brooklyn public housing complex. “So it is very stressful to be a mom and a worker.”
Simon-Toussaint’s experience is not unlike that of many low- and middle-income American parents whose efforts to accommodate their families as well as their jobs can seem almost acrobatic. Unlike more affluent professionals and executives, these workers tend to have jobs with little flexibility, unpredictable schedules, and nonexistent bargaining power. And forget about extra financial resources. Cobbling together free childcare or eldercare provided by relatives is commonplace because free is all they can afford. Without institutional supports like paid family leave, paid sick days, or a national system of quality affordable childcare, let alone accommodating bosses, low- and middle-income working parents are left to their individual devices and the results are tenuous.
“We say these families are one sick child away from being fired,” said Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law and a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law.
So far, Simon-Toussaint has been able to hang onto her job. Ai Elo wasn’t so lucky. When she was a 20-year-old college student, a family emergency forced her to take two weeks off from her restaurant job to care for her younger brother and sister, who came to live with her for several months. When she returned to work she found her name removed from the schedule.
“The conversation that happened was, ‘If you’re going to leave for two weeks, then don’t expect to have a job,’” said Elo, now 23. After her experience, she became active with the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York and its efforts to pass a paid sick days law in New York City.
“If you’re fired, you’re fired, and they can hire somebody else right on the spot,” she said. “There are 100 other people who would be willing to take your place and they know that. That’s also what makes it easy for them to be much more, I guess, dismissive of the needs of the workers there.”
Elo’s experience is not unusual, experts say.
“The workplace is perfectly designed for the workforce of 1960, a workforce of breadwinners married to homemakers,” said Williams, of UC Hastings and the author of What Works For Women At Work. “That is not the workforce that the employer has today. Consequently there is a mismatch between the workplace and the workforce that leads to these very high and very expensive levels of absenteeism and turnover.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 58 percent of women participated in the labor force in 2011, as did nearly 71 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18. In 1967 married couples in which only the husband worked represented 36 percent of the total, compared to 19 percent in 2010.
“And this is what’s so pernicious about it,” said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values at Work, a network of 21 state coalitions that advocate for family-supportive work policies. “Let’s say you lose your job. Well ‘Wthen you look like an irresponsible worker. Then you start to have a resume and people ask, ‘Why do you have these short job tenures, or why did you change jobs so many times, why were you out of work?’ Seldom will you have the hiring person ask, ‘Gee, did you work for a company that didn’t have any flexibility? Was your kid sick? Were you being a good mom, is that what happened to you?’”
In order to manage job and family responsibilities, workers frequently rely on relatives as babysitters because it’s so difficult to find affordable, high-quality childcare elsewhere. Some couples tag team—one working a day shift while the other works at night—so someone is always at home. Other parents use a patchwork of care with a different plan in place every day. In all cases, if anyone becomes sick, if a parent has to unexpectedly work overtime, if an emergency arises, the entire system can fall apart. People come up with solutions, but not necessarily ones that are sustainable.
Sarah Damaske, an assistant professor of Labor and Employment Relations and Sociology at Penn State University, said that when low pay, no benefits, unpredictable schedules given on short notice, poor treatment by managers, and difficulties finding childcare all merge, working can become more expensive than it’s worth.
“We don’t have good support systems to allow people like that to stay employed, which is crazy when you think about it, that you actually need resources in order to work,” Damaske said. “Because working is what’s supposed to give you resources.”
When parents do remain in the labor force, the fragile arrangements they create make quality family time rare, fatigue constant, and guilt a given.
Stacey Calvin, 38, a single mother and preschool teacher in a church-based daycare in Atlanta, has a precise morning routine with little room for deviation. She wakes up at about 5:30 am and rouses her children at 6 am. She puts her two youngest on the school bus at 6:40 am and leaves to catch her own bus at 6:45 am for her 1.5 hour (one-way) commute. Her 12-year-old son is home alone until he heads out at 7:30 am. Calvin calls him to make sure that he’s left.
“I go to work most mornings in tears because I feel guilty,” she said from her home in Stone Mountain, Georgia. “I push my children on the bus, then I have about five minutes to get my bus. And I leave him at home and god forbid something should happen to him, I would never forgive myself.”
Returning to work after several years as a self-described “PTA mom” in order to help her husband pay off his school loans and family credit-card debt, Chandra Benitez is struggling to adjust to her new life.
“I see my career as being very short-lived,” said the 30-year-old Alameda, CA, resident, who is a paratransit bus driver for the elderly and disabled.
She said she only learns her schedule at 8pm the night before, often works very early in the morning or into the evening, and worries that a childcare emergency could jeopardize her job. Right now her unemployed sister helps her mother care for the youngsters when Benitez and her husband are working. But her sister is looking for work and Benitez doesn’t know if her mother, who has health problems, could handle the children alone.
“So if my sister finds a job,” Benitez said, “it might put me out of a job.”
Although activists have been pushing for legislative reforms like paid family leave and sick days, the gains have been hard fought and slow in coming. Just six cities require businesses to give employees paid time off when they are ill, including Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, Portland, and Jersey City. Connecticut enacted the only statewide paid sick time law in 2011.
But even policy changes won’t solve all the problems. Experts say workplaces need to change as well. According to a report of The Center for Work-Life Law, co-authored by Williams, some key strategies to improve workplace flexibility for low-wage and hourly workers include: compressed work weeks, flex-time, job sharing, comp time, part-year work, online and team scheduling, shift-swapping, and using personal time in several-hour increments.
Recognizing that supervisors are also central to alleviating work-life conflicts, Leslie Hammer, a psychology professor and the director of the Center for Work-Family Stress, Safety, and Health at Portland State University, and her colleague, Ellen Kossek, a professor at the Krannert School of Management and Research Director of the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence at Purdue University, designed the Family Supportive Supervisor Training. It encourages supervisors to provide emotional support to their employees, help employees solve scheduling conflicts, use tools like cross-training so employees can cover several jobs, and teaches supervisors to role-model family supportive behaviors like taking time off to bring relatives to the doctor.
In a randomized controlled trial with grocery store workers in 2006, Hammer and Kossek found that when supervisors went through the training there was increased job satisfaction and reduced turnover among their employees with high work-family conflicts. All employees reported improved health outcomes.
Yet, until these strategies are routine, low- and middle-income workers will continue to struggle with work-life conflicts.
“In thinking about the people we work with it isn’t even really about juggling,” said Bravo, of Family Values at Work. “It’s not just about stress. It’s about survival.”