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Work Life Balance Lawsuits Surging

We previously blogged about the increasing number of lawsuits filed by employees alleging that they were discriminated against by their employers because of caregiving responsibilities at home for a parent or child. That post noted that the issue was the subject of a study entitled Litigating the Maternal Wall: U.S. Lawsuits Charging Discrimination Against Workers with Family Responsibilities (PDF, 1.7 MB), authored by Mary Still, a sociologist and fellow of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

This past weekend, The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy article on the same topic observing that the surge in "work life" lawsuits seems to result from the increasing number of Americans of all social backgrounds that are having trouble balancing the demands of work and family. The article shared extensive insights from Professor Joan C. Williams at the Center for WorkLife Law, whose 2001 book, Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It, presciently predicted that, absent remedial legislation, employee lawsuits might be necessary to rectify an increasingly outdated workplace norm, i.e., that the “ideal worker” who can work full time for an entire career while enjoying “immunity from family work."

While Williams' theory as to the trends driving the increase in "work life" lawsuits would lead one to believe that working women commence nearly all of them, as it turns out, at least up to 20% of these lawsuits are started by men (including one discussed in the article that was commenced by a former Maryland state trooper who was denied adequate leave time to care for his wife who had suffered severe medical complications during pregnancy). This has led Williams to observe that these litigations are less about gender discrimination and more a question of the growing tension between family values and traditional workplace norms.

See the full New York Times article here.

With many law firms still demanding extreme work obligations that inevitably conflict with family responsibilities, it would be ironic indeed if some of these lawsuits were to ultimately embroil major law firms. To head this off, firms might start thinking along the lines of favoring "performance" over "presence" with policies similar to the "Results-Only Work Environment" program implemented at Best Buy.

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As a speaker and the author of MOTHERING MOTHER: A Daughter's Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir, I meet caregivers face-to-face who are in the midst of this dilemma--and it's heartbreaking.

A few months ago, I sat in the office of one such woman. She spoke in a low voice so her employer wouldn't hear she was talking to me--a caregiving consultant. She had been with her employer for 20 years and was highly respected for her role, and yet now, after all this time, after all she had wored to accomplish, she was afraid she'd lose her job.
Her mother is 87 and is showing the early signs of Alzheimer's. This woman fields calls all day long from her home health aid, and then from her mother's memory loss care facility.
She said she had never missed so much work before--not even when her children were small.
She sat across from me wracked in worry and guilt. And she admitted the whole situation had put enormous strain on her marriage.
She said she was 52, and this was the time in life she thought she would start reaping some benefits--travel, freedom, and respect at work.
She said she didn't know how much longer she had--before she either had to quit or they let her go.
I could tell she felt uncomfortable even talking for me.
I listened. I hugged her good-bye. I told her to call or email any time. But the sad fact is that I can't "fix" her situation.

~Carol D. O'Dell
Author of MOTHERING MOTHER: A Daughter's Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir
Available on Amazon and in most bookstores.

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