Where’s Our Safety Net?

There’s an article in the latest issue (September 20, 2010) of The Nation titled “It’s Better Over There” that’s about the safety net that exists in Europe (specifically Germany) that doesn’t exist in the U.S. The author, Katha Pollitt, who is a columnist for The Nation (among other things), just came back from spending a year in Berlin and her report about how things are for the poor and the middle class in an economy that is hurting (although in better shape than ours) really made me think.

Here are some of the things Germans have that much of the U.S. doesn’t:

  • Six weeks of vacation and twenty-seven paid holidays.
  • Job security and retirement pensions.
  • Free, or nearly free education, including college.
  • Healthcare including nursing. (The German system requires everyone to buy insurance, but provides subsidies for low earners. Sound familiar?)
  • A government that provides partial compensation for lost wages and encourages companies to shorten hours rather than lay people off.
  • Paid maternity and maternity leave. [For international comparisons of parental leave policies, go here.]

This isn’t to say that social democratic systems like Germany’s are perfect, but they must be doing something right: Germany’s unemployment rate is around 7-7.5 and the United States’ is over 9 and worsening. [Source.]

But just mention social democracy and conservatives go crazy. They assume that social democracy is socialism, pure and simple. It’s not. One definition of social democracy (the one that applies to Germany) is: “a democratic welfare state that incorporates both capitalist and socialist practices.” It’s the “socialist” part that freaks conservatives out. But what social democracy means in practice is that the government is more hands-on in relation to issues that affect the common good. It’s not good for a country to have a high number of poor and unemployed. It costs everyone else a lot of money. It’s much better to spend that money making sure that workers are employed and spending their money. That’s what makes for a healthy economy.

It used to be that democracy meant “the rule of the majority.” But when you look at America today, you have to ask yourself if that’s still true. It seems to me that it is the wealthy and influential who rule America. And in their short-sighted desire to keep as much of their wealth and power as they can to themselves, they’ve robbed the majority of their right to make decisions that affect their very lives.

The term “majority” doesn’t mean the largest racial, religious or socioeconomic group. It means the most people overall. That means that minorities like blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, the handicapped, Muslims, welfare recipients and the poor all have a right to have their voices heard and their concerns addressed. And let’s not forget the largest group in this society: women. If we make up a majority of the population and of the workforce, why aren’t our needs being addressed?

I’ve written before about how vulnerable women are in our society. We have no maternity leave, fewer benefits, less pay and little or no support for the needs of our families. Women are often forced to work part-time because they can’t afford to pay for full-time child care (and women are still thought of as the primary child-care providers. Elder care also falls unfairly on the shoulders of women).

But this isn’t just a women’s issue. All of us are at risk. If our families aren’t protected and provided for, then what good is our government anyway?

We don’t have to identify as a social democracy in order to start caring for all our people. Returning to the original meaning of democracy would be enough.

Walmart’s Low Prices: Do They Come From Cheating Women?

Walmart is facing potentially the largest class action suit ever brought against a company. Estimates run as high as one million employees involved although Walmart has stated that it thinks it is “only” half a million. 

Walmart is now in the process of trying to get its case tossed out of court. In its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court it stated that each store is its own entity and therefore Walmart as an overall company can’t be sued. It also argued that there are too many potential plaintiffs and that the size of the suit renders it unmanageable.

This suit is significant not just because of its size. It will mark the first time a major company has been required to defend its pay and promotion policies in terms of sex discrimination. The original suit, which was brought in 2001 by seven women, alleged that female employees are consistently paid less than male employees, are promoted less often than men, and wait longer for chances for promotion.

It was subsequently decided that the suit qualified as a class action suit, and that it covers every woman employed at Walmart from 1998 to the present.

A class action suit makes it impossible for an individual woman to sue on her own behalf, but the sheer numbers in this suit would doubtless make a bigger impact on Walmart’s (and other companies’) pay and promotion policies in the future. If Walmart loses, it would take a financial hit of billions of dollars. Individual women suing Walmart would barely be noticed unless they won multimillion dollar settlements (which is not likely).

By rights, this suit, and Walmart’s attempts to wiggle out of it, should be headline news all through the fall, when the Supreme Court will probably rule on it. And it may well be, but I doubt it will be because it is about women. Its main significance is probably going to be seen as its impact on future class action suits instead of on how women employees are treated at Walmart. It’s only the sheer size of the suit that’s putting it in the headlines at all.

Some people will defend Walmart because they know women who are happy working there. But that doesn’t mean that Walmart isn’t guilty of the charges against it. (After all, slavery wasn’t right, even though some slave owners were humane and some slaves seemed to be happy with their lot.) I’m sure there are individual women who have done well at Walmart, at least in their eyes. But do they really know how much better off they could have done if Walmart didn’t have a discriminatory policy?

Others will defend Walmart because they simply don’t believe that there is any discimination against women in this day and age. These are the same people who declare that there is no longer any use for feminism, because its battles have all been won.

But if this suit has any merits, it would seem that they haven’t all been won. Those who would treat women inequitably are still our enemies.

 [Note: It’s interesting that whenever feminists talk in terms of a war against inequality, they are labeled as man-haters. That’s a misconception. Feminists are aware that some women are traitors to their own sex, even if unwittingly. And some men are our greatest champions. I’m sure that there are men and women at Walmart who discriminate against women. So I’m not just talking about men when I mention enemies. I’m talking about anyone who has adopted the “party line,” who goes along with those who think it’s fair to pay and promote men more than women.]

How to Alleviate Job Stress

Earlier this month, a JetBlue flight attendant named Steven Slater made headlines by his reaction to job stress: he loudly tendered his resignation over the airplane’s public address system, grabbed two beers and exited using the emergency chute. What set him off specifically? Having to deal with yet another rude and unruly passenger.

What was up with that? Couldn’t he have found another way to express his anger? Perhaps, but you have to admit that the way he chose certainly caught the public’s attention (not to mention the attention of his employer).

What is ironic is that the same day he conducted this unusual “exit interview,” The Wall Street Journal featured an article about how employers  are shocked that they can’t find people to work for them, even though unemployment is high. Apparently people won’t just take any old job: they’ve reached their limit in their willingness to take on stressful jobs, whether the stress is from low pay or poor working conditions, or both.

The next day, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that U.S. productivity rates have actually fallen for the first time in over a year, to a 0.9% annual rate. The reasoning behind this statistic is that American workers just can’t work any harder. They’re being asked to do more than is humanly possible.

People lucky enough to keep their jobs are expected to do the work left behind by those who have been fired. Companies don’t care how stressful this is for their workers; all they care about is cutting labor costs. But the end result might be lower productivity, higher absenteeism and more money paid out in sick leave, medical costs and disability payments for workers who have burnt out from job stress.

Women are hit particularly hard by this phenomenon. Many women already work at stressful jobs like nursing, waitressing and teaching and now they’re getting less time to do more work than ever before. Add this to the stress they deal with from juggling jobs and home work (keeping the household running) and it’s no wonder that women report more depression, anxiety and medical problems related to stress than men do (although this is also partly because men are reluctant to admit that they’re having trouble handling stress).

It should be said that work stress doesn’t always cause mental and physical health problems, but it can make pre-existing conditions worse. So much worse that the worker may find that he or she eventually can’t work at all.

Some stress is good for us: it keeps us on our toes and functioning more efficiently. But too much stress makes for a sick and tired work force. Sick and tired of “taking it.” But most people don’t have a choice. They keep on trying to run like a hamster in a hamster wheel. On some occasions, they run themselves to death.

Is it coincidental that many  more women are dying of heart attacks than cancer? That they die of them at a higher rate than men do within one year of having one (for people 40 and older)? [Source here.]

And that’s not even counting the stunted lives that come from having chronic depression or anxiety. We try to keep up, but the harder we try, the more we fall behind.

Because I hate to be given advice, I also hesitate to give it. But I can’t end this post without pointing out a few things a woman can do to decrease her job stress and increase her mental and physical health.

They are:

  1. Learn to stick up for yourself at work and how to do so calmly but firmly. If you have trouble with this, enlist the help of a union, if there is one. That’s what unions are for: to be your advocate.
  2. Know what your rights are. Make sure you’re getting regular pay reviews. Brush up on the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
  3. Follow the rules. It’s less stressful to make sure you’re never late or never take of work “just for the heck of it” than it is to have to fight a disciplinary action.
  4. Report harassment. This doesn’t just include sexual harassment. Anything that makes your workplace toxic should be reported to Human Resources or the appropriate manager.
  5. Take advantage of any Employee Assistance Program your company may have. This is a set number of counseling sessions that your employer is obligated to provide you at no cost to you. The programs also offer assessment and referrals to outside counseling and resources.
  6. Find a mentor: a sympathetic person at work (or elsewhere) who is willing to give you good advice and be a source of inspiration and strength.
  7. Look for less-stressful job positions at the company you already work for. A different department or shift can make all the difference.
  8. If there are no better positions or you hate your company, keep job hunting. There are other solutions. You just have to be open to them.
  9. Don’t just look for a higher-paying job; take into account the working conditions and benefits. Studies have shown that people cite “good working conditions” as more important to them than “higher pay.”
  10. Consider self-employment. While this can also be stressful, it may be worth it, if you’re truly unhappy working for someone else.

In addition to these tips, make sure that you:

  1. Get regular check-ups. Tell your doctor if you’re having symptoms of stress. This includes mental as well as physical symptoms. If he or she doesn’t take you seriously, go to another doctor.
  2. Educate yourself on symptoms of heart disease and follow the recommendations for avoiding or alleviating it. This includes signs of strokes as well as heart attacks.
  3. Get regular exercise. Make sure your get your doctor’s okay if you’re thinking of taking up something which is fairly strenuous. Find some kind of guidance program for maximum efficiency and safety.
  4. Modify your diet. Learn to prepare healthy meals. Keep healthy foods on hand for snacks. Eat smaller but more frequent meals. Make sure you have something to go on during your work day.
  5. Stop smoking. Stop drinking excessively. (A glass of red wine a day is recommended if you don’t have a problem with alcohol.)
  6. Drink plenty of water. Carry a water bottle with you at all times, if possible. Make sure your only fluids aren’t pop or coffee. They don’t satisfy your body’s hydration requirements.
  7. Find an absorbing hobby. Take a course in something you’ve always been interested in. Buy season tickets or annual memberships for something you enjoy (you’ll be more likely to regularly participate).
  8. Beef up your belief system. Find a group of like-minded individuals and spend time with them. (This doesn’t have to be a religion; it could be a group that is concerned about the environment or social justice, for instance.)
  9. Restrict your access to the news if you find yourself getting agitated or depressed by it. Find sources that propose solutions and cause you to think rather than just react.
  10. Make time for yourself every day, even if it’s just a few minutes to pray or write in a journal. Pamper yourself occasionally. Take mini-vacations. Make memories.

Job and life stress are controllable. First you need to determine the level of stress you’re living with. Then you need to learn to recognize any physical or psychological signs of harmful stress. And finally, you need to do something about it.

Go here for more information about stress: types, causes, symptoms and treatment.

The World’s Worst Mother (Video)

Ayelet Waldman tells how her essay about how she loves her husband more than her children caused a furor after it appeared in The New York Times. She is now officially known as the “World’s Worst Mother.” The video is 52 minutes long, but it is funny and gossipy and contains a lot of insight about the dilemma of modern motherhood. Fathers, there’s a message here for you, too.

Enjoy! Video here.

Read what Sandra Tsing Loh has to say about Ayalet Waldman’s bad motherhood in The Atlantic Monthly.

It’s About Time: New Bill of Rights for Domestic Workers

In 2002, a satirical novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus ended up on the New York Times bestseller list, which probably didn’t sit too well with all the New Yorkers who had ever employed nannies and/or domestic workers. The book, The Nanny Diaries (which was later made into a movie starring Scarlett Johannson), was widely believed to be a fairly accurate, if exaggerated, look at what nannies go through, especially when they work for nightmare parents.

There will always be nightmare employers of course (although it must be said that not all employers abuse and misuse their staff), but a new bill just passed in the New York State Senate will go a long way toward affording  nannies and other domestic workers protections and rights that up to this point they have not enjoyed.

Domestic workers have traditionally been excluded from normal workers’ rights to things like paid sick leave, holidays and vacation, a set work day, overtime wages and termination pay (or two weeks notice of termination). This new bill will correct that. Naturally the bill has met with opposition (especially from Republicans) on the grounds that it will afford protections to undocumented workers and increase costs to employers.

Continue reading “It’s About Time: New Bill of Rights for Domestic Workers”