Thursday, February 10, 2005

Family First

When my wife and I had our first child, a little over 4 years ago, we made the decision that once my wife's maternity leave was up we would place our daughter in daycare. A neighbor of ours, licensed by the state, ran a daycare business out of her house just down the street. She was very nice, close to our home and inexpensive. It seemed like an ideal situation, and it worked well for a couple months.

Then, unexpectedly, our neighbor told us she had to fly back home to India on short notice. Some type of family emergency (I don't recall now exactly what it was) that was going to require her to be gone for a month. Suddenly we had to find daycare for our 5-month old. We contacted several commercial daycare centers, but they were either too expensive or had a waiting list. We were running out of time, and options.

My wife had used all of her paid leave after the baby was born. We looked over our finances, but there was just no way we could afford to have her take another month off without pay. That left it up to me. I had enough accumulated leave to cover most of the month, if my boss would let me use it. If not, my salary accounted for a smaller portion of our income than my wife's and we figured we could survive for a month if I had to take the time off unpaid. We made our decision.

The following day I told my boss, the Director of Operations, that I needed to meet with him. We sat down in his office and I told him that I needed the next month off of work to care for my little girl. He laughed and asked if I was joking. I handed him a letter I had written, formally requesting a month off under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). He stopped laughing and told me he would get back to me. Knowing the company culture and having an idea of the owners' business philosophy, I figured I was in for a fight. When I got home that night I got online and researched the FMLA. I wanted to be certain of my rights under the law, and I wanted to be prepared.

The next day my boss called me into his office. He and the Vice President (one of the owners) were waiting for me. I told them about my situation, and again requested the time off. I told them I was willing to take unpaid leave if necessary. They balked. The VP did most of the talking. How could I just up and leave for a month? I managed the department responsible for most of the company's profit, didn't I realize how important it was to the business that I be there? I was firm, and insisted that they allow me the time off. They said no.

I sat there fuming inside, angry as hell but trying not to lose it. I worked my butt off for this company, putting in countless hours at the expense of my new family. It was not uncommon for me to work 60-70 hours a week (much more than that during the busiest times; I logged over a 100 hours on one of our busiest weeks that year - and unfortunately I wasn't paid by the hour). I looked my boss in the eye, then turned to the VP and told him that I had studied the FMLA and really didn't see how they could deny me the time off. I was going to take the month off.

The VP told me that if that was the case he wasn't sure whether I was the right guy for the management position I held. I told him flatly that he better stop right there and consult his attorney. He glanced over at my boss who was beginning to look a bit uncomfortable. My boss said I was right, they better check with a lawyer.

That evening, back at home, I called my attorney for some advice and to let him know that I might have need of his services.

The next day at work, my boss came by and handed me a piece of paper approving my leave. I was glad the situation hadn't escalated beyond where it had, but the whole thing left a bitter taste in my mouth. I took the month off. The company even let me use some of my paid leave to cover a portion of the time. Our daycare provider came back and I returned to my job the following month. A few weeks later I resigned.

The following year I was asked to testify at a State Senate hearing in Annapolis on the FMLA. I have heard from other fathers, who are too scared they will lose there jobs if they take time to care for their children, even though they have that right under the law. Why is it that profit and corporate convenience are so often given priority over family?

I know why.

It's because people don't demand that family's come first! The business lobbies are organized. They have money on their side. They have power, and power only responds to power. Until there are enough voices demanding that our kids and families come first, until we are organized, until parents are as powerful an influence as the business lobby, things will not change. In fact, they could get worse....

Elizabeth, over at Half Changed World, noted on Monday that
...there are widespread rumors that the Family and Medical Leave Act is under attack. While nothing official has been released, the rumors are that the Department of Labor is considering making regulatory changes that would severely undercut the protections of FMLA.
Rebel Dad took up the charge in a post the next day:
Laws that protect a parent's ability to spend time with their children are crucial. And efforts to roll back those laws suggest a real lack of perspective on how important that parent-child time is to mothers, fathers and kids.
I'd encourage parents and parents-to-be to let their voices be heard on this issue. Blog about it if you're so inclined, and check out Half Changed World for some next steps.

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