America Arrests Working Mom. Good Job, America!

80s McDonalds WorkerWelcome to the US of A, where you can get arrested for letting your nine-year-old play in the park while you go to work at McDonald’s. Spluttering with indignation? Let Conor Friederdorf of the Atlantic articulate your outrage for you. His skills are well-honed.

By arresting this mom (presumably causing her to lose her job) and putting the child in foster care, the state has caused the child far more trauma than she was ever likely to suffer in the park, whatever one thinks of the decision to leave her there. Even if the state felt it had the right to declare this parenting decision impermissible, couldn’t they have given this woman a simple warning before taking custody?

Also, even though it is against the law for your boss to tell you not to discuss your salary with your coworkers, odds are your boss will either not know that or not care. For that matter, you may well not know your rights, either. Let’s go over them, shall we? 

Here’s a handy site: WorkplaceFairness.org. It covers benefits, leaves, harassment, unions, privacy, and lots of other fun stuff. Though the answers aren’t always heartening — for example, yes, your employer can legally require a drug test — information is power. The laws you don’t like, you can work to try to change.

But yeah, again, you know what’s not legal: telling your employees not to talk about what they make. And yet it happens all the time.

Given their illegality, why are gag rules so common? One answer is that the NLRA is toothless and employers know it. When employees file complaints, the National Labor Relations Board’s “remedies” are slaps on the wrist: reinstatement for wrongful termination, back-pay, and/or “informational remedies” such as “the posting of a notice by the employer promising to not violate the law.” At the same time, ignorance of the law can just as easily fuel gag rules. Craig Becker, general counsel for the AFL-CIO, used to serve on the National Labor Relations Board. He told me that workers who called the NLRB rarely were aware that their employer’s pay secrecy policy was unlawful. …

And many workers are, in fact, getting stiffed—especially women and people of color. Recall the story of Lilly Ledbetter, the inspiration of the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which gives workers a longer period of time to file pay discrimination suits against their employer. Ledbetter was told that she would be fired if she talked about pay with her coworkers, but after nearly three decades of work with Goodyear, someone slipped her a note saying that she was underpaid. Ledbetter’s case shows how pay secrecy can cause the pay gap between men and women, a gap that widens between men and women of color. More than 50 years after the Equal Pay Act, study after study show that women are still paid less than men for the same work.

My first job out of college, I was told not to discuss benefits or bonuses with my coworkers and I nodded solemnly, eager to be a good girl. And both of my parents are lawyers! Of course most of us don’t know our rights. We aren’t taught how to be workers by anything except sitcoms, and no one ever mentions gag rules on Frasier. 

The nine-year-old situation steams my windows even more, possibly, because I feel so bad for the mother, and all the other mothers forced to leave their kids in cars and make other impromptu, high-stress decisions because we refuse, as a nation, to invest in affordable childcare. We talk so much about how we want people to work rather than rely on welfare and government handouts. Well, when parents work, what are their kids supposed to do? Especially during the summer, when school is out?

When did we decide fourth- and fifth-graders need constant adult supervision, anyway? My first date was in fifth grade. I can assure you my parents had no idea where I was. (In Hardee’s, and then a dollar store, and then in his laundry room having my first kiss.) It was not child neglect; it was life, and it was great.

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