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Do Childless Workers Get the Short End of the Stick?

In one author's view, parent-friendly office policies and tax breaks discriminate against employees who don't have children.

March 13, 2000|MARNELL JAMESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Attention working parents: The jig is up. The party's over. No more free lunch. We're mad as heck, and we're not going to take it anymore. According to one writer, those are just the beginning rumblings of an unspoken fury that has been building in the hearts and minds of many childless working adults.

Giving voice to this silent scream is Elinor Burkett, whose latest book, "Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless" (Free Press), hit bookstores this month. Burkett's book is the latest in a wave of but-what-about-me books bombing the American psyche for yet another infraction of human rights. This time it's about workplace discrimination against childless workers.

Who picks up the slack when Betty leaves early to take Janie to the doctor? Who goes to Cleveland on a moment's notice or works the holidays or covers when Joe leaves early to coach his son's Little League team?

Working folks without kids, that's who, according to Burkett.

And by the way, ever notice that parents get more job benefits and tax breaks than people without children? What happened to equal pay for equal work? So goes the position championed by Burkett, 53, a married, "childless by choice" veteran journalist.

And the gloves are off.

While some childless adults heartily identify with Burkett's message, others claim the issues don't affect them. On a macro level, critics charge that Burkett's notions hurt the women's movement, pit parents against nonparents and are selfishly inconsiderate of society's needs.

"I find myself getting really angry listening to her thesis," said Ruth Rosen, professor of history at UC Davis and author of "The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America" (Viking, 2000). "One of her presumptions is that we've achieved the goal of a family-friendly workplace. That's not reality. The people with the hardest lives are men and women, particularly women, who work and have children. If anything, parents feel pressed to do more to prove they are not slacking off."

But Mike, who works in computer sales, says Burkett is singing his song. (Mike, like most people interviewed for this story, asked that only his first name be used.) A member of the San Fernando Valley/Ventura chapter of No Kidding, an international support group for childless adults, Mike is 35, single and childless. He's outraged by the dispensation he believes parents get on the job. "They get so much more flexibility. If they have to leave early to pick up the kids, it's not just excused, it's encouraged."

At his former job, Mike said, he was assigned the undesirable travel. "I was always the person sent to Minneapolis because I was single and unfettered. The others in my department had families. At first I didn't mind, but eventually I did. I never spoke up because I didn't feel it was an environment in which I could."

If Clinton's support for federal unemployment insurance goes through, Mike really will be miffed. Currently an employer is required to provide family leave to new mothers and fathers but not for pay. If Clinton gets his way, unemployment insurance will kick in. "Why should my tax dollars pay for this when the government wouldn't pay for me if I wanted to take leave to go travel? That's just as valid a choice."

Darcy, 41, works in the retail industry and also has felt slighted by what she views as preferential treatment given parents. She believes a lot depends on the boss. In her last job, where she worked as an executive for a major department store, her boss had children and always assigned holiday shifts to nonparents. "My schedule at Christmas was always the last to be considered, which assumed A) that I don't have a family, which I do--I just don't have children--and B) that I don't have a life."

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She recalled one female employee who came in 45 minutes late and left 45 minutes early each day to accommodate her child-care situation. Her pay was never affected, and Darcy and her colleagues had to cover.

"There was no appreciation," she said. "Never a nod of gratitude to those of us who didn't leave all the time or who picked up the load. . . . It's expected." Of course, some small monetary compensation, or an offer to go home early one Friday, would be better.

That's exactly Burkett's point. "Mothers expect childless people to cover as if it's an entitlement. The fact that it inconveniences me never registers. I've yet to meet any parent who felt at all guilty about ripping off a childless person," said Burkett, a New York resident who is in Minneapolis working on her next book.

The women's movement gave women choices, she added. "But why am I expected to do more because someone else chose to do too much? Every time I hear that phrase, 'It takes a village,' I want to scream. A village that diminishes my rights is not a village I want to live in."

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