Free Riding on Women – Part One


When you’ve got your finger on the pulse of the whacked-out wonk world which is Washington, you pick up on the wind shifts quickly. The topic of carework, what it costs and who’s paying, is popping up more often and in increasingly provocative language these days. Lately I’ve been looking at “Free Riding on Families: Why the American Workplace Needs to Change and How to Do It”. Charging that the American economy rests on the free labor of women, the author picks apart the many ways the US fails to lives up to its promise of “family values”. I’m going to lay out a few choice bits here in the next few posts, because you’ll probably not come across the brief on your own and you’ll want to know.

Most people have heard of the FMLA or Family Medical Leave Act, the only federal law that touches upon carework and paid work. This is what the FMLA offers. If you work for an employer of a certain size, AND if you worked for at least 1,250 hours in the immediately preceding 12 months, AND if you or a family member confront a specified health emergency, AND if you can afford to go without income, you can take up to 12 weeks of leave and come back to your job. This was the best deal legislators could make in 1993, and no one’s been able to improve upon it in the intervening 17 years.

In reality, more than half the private sector work force is immediately ineligible because the FMLA only applies to employers with 50 or more employees. Of the eligible employees, a great proportion, perhaps 3/4, don’t take FMLA leave because they can’t afford to go without a single paycheck. Because of the 1,250 hours requirement, most part-time workers (who are women) aren’t eligible for the leave. Some researchers estimate the number of new mothers both covered by the law and fulfilling its requirements is no more than 20% of all new mothers – but they will only benefit from the law if they can survive without their wages.

From time to time, a member of Congress will suggest that some or all of the 12 weeks of leave ought to be paid leave, or the law should apply to employers with only 25 or more employees. None of these efforts has gotten very far, and there are none on the horizon. Some state legislatures have had more success. In Maine, state law extends the FMLA to employers with at least 15 employees, who can take up to 10 weeks of leave every two years if they fulfill a minimum number of hours worked in the preceding 12 months. A few states have devised family leave insurance programs, under which the leave may be partially paid, such as California, New Jersey, and Washington.

So, for a place which proclaims the value of Mom and her apple pie, there’s scant practical help in terms of keeping the money coming in when a crisis, or even a “blessed event”, occurs. Birth, death, a broken leg, a sick parent – normal events in the course of a life – the American worker is on her own. We provide for the formerly-employed elderly with Social Security and Medicare, the disabled also with Social Securty, the unemloyed with unemployment insurance, the indigent with medical care under Medicaid. Are we taking advantage of a woman’s need to generate income at the cost of her role as a family careworker? Does it have a negative impact on her? On her workplace? Her employer? Her baby, or spouse, or dying parent? Does it have a negative impact on the wider community, and society as a whole? Is this the way we want things to be?

You can find the full report here.


  • GoodReason

    What I'd like to understand is why America is so hostile to helping mothers. Austria counts family caregiving towards one's retirement. Most all other countries have paid maternity leave. Why, oh, why, is America so hateful to mothers? Does it stem from the blinders a highly masculinized culture has? Or is it rank misogyny, with women as really good for nothing but domestic work and reproduction, which is seen as the lowest form of unskilled labor?

    Why America?

  • Joannie


    I think it doesn't help to personalize these issues, good reason, this can blinker you to wider issues of justice and equity that are so relevant here (see Eva Kittay – Loves Labour, Martha Fineman – The Autonomy Myth – important books in this regard).

    I have just been reading Flat Broke with Children by Sharon Hays, a book that can make you mad. Unfortunately, she too pitches the issues in terms of values, individualzed, but in her conclusions she sets out a range of measures that need to be put in place – worth a read if you can get a hold of it.

    best, Joannie