By Stephanie Hammerwold
Large companies have been making headlines lately for how they treat their workers. Whether it is the benefits they do or don’t provide, long hours or company culture, these large companies are representative of our cultural attitudes toward work in the U.S. Netflix is known for fostering a culture where long days are not the norm and benefits like leaves of absences go far beyond what is required by law. Netflix sounds like a great place to work, right? That is until you realize that benefits are not the same for the employees who work in their DVD distribution centers.
We’re a Great Place to Work, but not for You
A recent article in The Guardian drew attention to the disparity between those who work in Netflix DVD distribution centers and those who work in higher paid jobs in office environments. As the article points out, Netflix received praise for offering generous leave benefits to new parents, but several organizations have stepped forward to challenge Netflix over the fact that they do not extend those benefits to their distribution center employees. Netflix points out that they provide the leave required by law and tend to pay their distribution employees more than the industry standard. This is a step in the right direction, but it does little to support employees who want to have and raise children.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), approximately 43% of families in the U.S. had children who are under 18 in 2014. In addition, the BLS found that in 60.2% of married-couple households with children, both parents worked. This is a big segment of the workforce that must balance raising a family with the demands of the workplace, and one way employers can support employees is by providing leave that extends beyond what is required by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and state leave laws.
This all raises the question: in a workplace culture that favors higher paid workers when it comes to benefits such as leaves of absence, who is entitled to have a child? While companies may argue that it becomes increasingly important to attract top candidates to certain jobs by offering generous benefits at that level, it ultimately sends the message that those higher on the ladder are far more valuable than their low-wage counterparts.
In These Times recently reported that one in four new moms in the U.S. returns to work within two weeks of giving birth. While those that meet the eligibility requirements of the FMLA are entitled to up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave, this time off is unpaid. Unless a new mom is lucky enough to work for an employer with paid leave or to live in a state that provides some kind of state program such as California’s State Disability Insurance (SDI) or Paid Family Leave (PFL), she may have to make the decision to head back to work early for financial reasons.
So, it is nice that companies like Netflix provide this benefit for some employees, but it should not stop there. We need to foster an environment where all employees are supported in their desire to raise a family. The reality is that we live in a society where we need workers at all levels, and the fact that someone works in a distribution center or factory should not mean they count for less as part of the workforce.
Lack of Flexibility Adds an Extra Burden
I got my start in HR working at a manufacturing and distribution company. At its height, the company grew to 650 employees—many of whom worked in low-wage jobs in the warehouse or in production. I was talking to my boss, the HR director, about a warehouse worker who was struggling to balance raising her children and her work schedule, and it was often causing her to arrive late to her shift. Rather than finding a way to adjust the employee’s schedule, the HR director's response was, “Well, I managed to raise three kids and show up to work, so this employee should be able to figure it out.”
Retail, food service, warehouse and production line work are all examples of jobs that require employees to work specific hours. The nature of the work is such that the business needs to maintain coverage to ensure smooth operations. If retail employees picked their own hours, it would be a challenge to ensure someone was always there to run the register. Office workers often have more flexibility when it comes to scheduling, and it may be easier to adjust the schedule of an accounts payable clerk than it would be to change the hours of a warehouse employee. In my example above, the HR director had some control over her schedule. If she needed to come in late due to a sick child or a school meeting, there were no consequences. In effect, her statement denied the extra burden faced by working parents who do shift work.
I am not calling for automatically changing employees’ shifts whenever they have problems getting to work on time, but we need to recognize the added burden of not having schedule flexibility for parents who do shift work. We can do this by including them in the generous leave benefits we offer to office employees.
Benefits for All
The sad truth is that the U.S. lags far behind other countries in providing leave options to employees. Plenty of countries offer paid leave and companies still manage to survive. When companies offer generous leaves of absence and benefits, it is an acknowledgement that an employee's life does not stop when they clock out at the end of the workday. When a company makes the choice to support an employee during major life events, it is an investment in their workforce.
The debate over raising minimum wage has been a regular topic in the media lately. Those against raising it often say that people in low-wage jobs should just work harder to make more money. The reality is that we need people in those jobs to ensure that our packages arrive on time and our food is made to order. We keep hearing about unemployment dropping and more jobs being added, but many of these jobs are in the low-wage retail and service sectors. People are getting back to work, but it is in jobs that traditionally do not carry good benefits; therefore, it is imperative that employers include these employees in benefits such as generous leave and to not have such perks be the exclusive domain of a select few at the top.
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