Balancing family and work shouldn’t be hazardous to your employment

Sixth-grader Kyle Stilwell, 12, works on his pre-algebra study guide as mom Niki works from home in Fenton, Mo.
(Stephanie S. Cordle / MCT)

Lately we’ve learned from some very powerful companies that trying to balance family and work can be hazardous to your employment.

This month, AOL Chief Executive Tim Armstrong incited a firestorm when he blamed rising healthcare costs for having to cut back on the company’s retirement plan. He attributed the proposed benefits cuts to the expense of having to care for two “distressed babies” who needed medical attention.

To blame sick babies for the scaling back of other employee benefits is misplaced at best, especially considering the enormous profits the company has made in recent years. Armstrong himself earned $12 million in 2012, and AOL’s quarterly earnings are the best they’ve been in years. At worst, his blame zeros in on the kind of malevolence corporate America can display when something — in this case sick babies — gets in the way of its bottom line. The Internet exploded with ire over the comment, and the backlash caused the company to reconsider the policy move and then reverse it.

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While Armstrong’s comments were callous, they aren’t all that surprising. American workers from white collar to retail have to deal with not just hostile attitudes toward taking care of their families but weak policies that don’t do enough to make the balance of work and life easier. The AOL CEO’s attitude highlights how leaving the crafting of family-friendly work environments up to the boss falls short for working families, and that federal and state policies need to kick in to pick up the slack.

Armstrong apologized for his comments and reinstated the original retirement policy after a public outcry, but other CEOs have recently repealed policies that make it easier for families to balance work and home. Last year, after Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced in a leaked internal memo that the company would be ending its policy that allowed some employees to work from home, she built a personal nursery next to her office so that she could work next to her baby. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” said the memo. “We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.”

Mayer’s move suggests that juggling family and work is reserved for the people making the policies, not for those workers on the ground who have to live with it. But the moves set a precedent for corporate America that such policy changes are acceptable. A week after Mayer’s announcement, Best Buy also eliminated its work-from-home policy.

Attitudes like Armstrong’s and policy changes like Mayer’s display how precarious family-friendly policies can be when left up to employers, especially when federally implemented policies are inadequate. Many new parents face the challenge of figuring out how long they can afford to take unpaid time off, because American workers are not guaranteed paid family leave to care for a sick loved one or a new baby.


The Family Medical Leave Act, a federal policy that turned 21 years old this month, only guarantees employees unpaid time off, something that’s not possible for many middle- and low-income families that rely on dual incomes to make ends meet. Flexible work schedules are desirable to many employees, but studies show that there is still stigma surrounding asking for flexible schedules and implementing them. And there are also no federal laws in place to require policies for workers to accrue paid sick days, so workers are forced to come to work sick, endangering themselves and others.

Dual-income families have been steadily on the rise since the 1960s, but family-friendly workplace policies don’t reflect these changes. Weak federal and state laws guaranteeing workers family-friendly policies have left the onus on the employer to create a workplace that is accommodating and flexible to parents. Leaving policies up to the discretion of employers is problematic, though, because sometimes all they see is an unproductive worker instead of a new mom or dad who needs workplace flexibility. The United States needs to make a significant cultural shift in how businesses treat parents. We can start by mandating better laws that hold employers accountable for unreasonable attitudes and policies.

Fortunately, there is recent polling that shows some voters are ready to force employers to make a change. A recent survey of 1,000 likely voters, commissioned by American Women, the National Partnership for Women & Families and the Rockefeller Family Fund, shows that a broad demographic swath of voters support family-friendly legislation and will cast their votes accordingly. The poll indicates voters are in favor of policy changes, including making it harder for employers to pay women less than men for similar work, guaranteeing workers the ability to earn paid sick time, and creating a national paid family and medical leave fund.

Perhaps the polling suggests that voters from a diverse set of backgrounds have caught on that it’s not enough to leave these kinds of policies up to the CEOs. Or that they are fed up with workplaces that are still operating on the old-fashioned notion of single-income families, where dad goes to work and mom stays at home. Either way, it’s an indication that the way things are now for working families isn’t working for them.


Workers shouldn’t have to worry about their jobs if they have to stay home with their sick child, or if they need to work at a cash register rather than lift heavy boxes during pregnancy. Workers shouldn’t have to be worried about being publicly blamed for the downgrading of company-wide policies when a medical emergency they had no control over comes up.

Families need federal policies that protect them when the unexpected happens, and they shouldn’t be shamed when they need to use them.


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Susan Rohwer is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @susanrohwer.