Saturday, October 14, 2006

Maternal Profiling

My comments follow the article...

Maternal Profiling
Sunday, September 17, 2006
Anita Dufalla, Post-Gazette

Since becoming a mom I now understand a lot of things about mothers that never seemed to make sense to me way back when. Like why my mom would stand at the end of the driveway when I rode off on my bike, or why she insisted on brushed hair and clean nails, or why she tended to be a stress case around the holidays. With four kids of my own, I get it, Mom. Promise. But there are some issues involving motherhood I don't understand at all, one I learned about just a few weeks ago.

At a special screening of an about-to-be-released documentary film called, "The Motherhood Manifesto," based on the book of the same name by Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, I happened on a little known fact about mothers in our state.

In Pennsylvania it is legal for employers to ask job applicants if they have kids or if they are married. The applicants' answers can determine if they are hired, or not, meaning they can be rejected not because of their qualifications but because of blanket perceptions about what having children (or not), or being married (or not) means. More often than not, these types of questions are directed at women, and tend to hurt mothers, especially single mothers.

The film features a woman named Kiki Peppard, from Effort, Pa., who, when she was new to our state 12 years ago, couldn't find a job in Pennsylvania, because, as she was told by numerous, would-be employers, she was a "single mom."

"I don't want to have to carry your kids' health benefits," was one reply Kiki got, when she asked an employer why it mattered if she had kids.

Kiki had excellent references, was a fast and accurate typist and never missed work, according to her former employers in Long Island, N.Y. But, in the Poconos, Kiki learned that none of her credentials mattered. After 19 interviews -- all starting with the questions, "Are you married? Do you have kids?" -- Kiki still did not have a job. Kiki and her daughter and her young son (who suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis) were forced onto welfare.

The more I thought about the film, the more worked up I got. How, in this day and age, could the people of Pennsylvania tolerate "maternal profiling?" The first person I called after seeing the film was Kiki.

"I asked other single moms, 'How do you get jobs?' and they would all say, 'Oh, I lie and say I don't have kids. That's how it works around here,' " Kiki said. "But three months go by, and it is time for benefits, these single moms are in a bad spot, because they lied in their interviews about their kids in the first place. The kids go on without health coverage. It is devastating. It happens all the time."

In New York, as in several other states, it is illegal to ask questions about marriage and family in a job interview, so Kiki had never faced those questions before, and she never had trouble finding work in New York.

"I am as mad today as I was 12 years ago," Kiki said. But Kiki didn't just fume, she took action. After calling the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission to complain, she was told that her experience in Pennsylvania was common, and legal. She also was told by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that marriage and family status are not protected federally either.

"What can I do then?" Kiki asked a representative of the Pennsylvania commission. "Get a law passed," he answered.

For six years Kiki struggled to get a lawmaker to sponsor legislation. She has spent six more years fighting to get it made into law.

The legislation, HB 352 and SB 440, would amend the 50-year-old Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, and make it illegal to ask "marital" or "familial" questions of job applicants. The bills remain stalled in committees.

Where is the massive, public outcry?

"There has not been an understanding or appreciation of how widespread this type of discrimination may be," state Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, sponsor of SB 440, wrote me in an e-mail.

"Many believe that familial discrimination is currently illegal in Pennsylvania," Ms. Orie continued.

It's true, not one person I have talked to about this issue in the last month believed that asking an job applicant about married life or kids was legal in Pennsylvania, but, according to complaints lodged with the state and women's organizations, there are plenty of Pennsylvania employers out there who know their "rights" and take full advantage of them.

Homer Floyd, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, is worried. "There are a lot of consequences to this kind of discrimination. Many women find it far more difficult to find quality health care for themselves and for their children. Many mothers can't get a good job that pays the kind of living wage that takes care of themselves and their kids. It is extremely important to have the law changed now and we do think this is very important," Mr. Floyd told me.

Why an employer would discriminate against a potential, qualified employee doesn't make sense to me, especially an employee who needs the work to support her kids and could, therefore, be that much more committed to her job and her productivity.

The "bottom line," it appears, is a key factor when employers discriminate against mothers, driven by a belief that health benefits (if there are any) could cost the employer more if a spouse doesn't have insurance or if the woman is single, or that mothers are less productive.

Could it be that these employers don't understand the nature of moms?

"Discriminating against a mother is disingenuous. Mothers are well known for their juggling skills, and, most of the time, can keep all their balls in the air," said Debra Levy, director of Mothers & More, a national association for mothers.

Another possibility is that some employers just don't accept that the world is different now.

"The model of a family living off the wage of one worker and one person at home is obsolete and is never coming back. It is a disorienting time for our country, but we have got to find a way to accommodate these changes," said Judith Stadtman Tucker, editor of Mothers Movement Online.

Stadtman Tucker says the time has come for businesses, and the nation, to make a leap of consciousness. "People call it the 'changing' work force," she pointed out, but, really, it is the "changed work force."

For businesses that embrace the new world of work, it can pay off.

Georgia Berner, a mother of four, took over the New Castle-based manufacturing company her husband ran when he was killed in a plane crash 22 years ago. Since then, Berner International has grown 600 percent, embracing a host of family-friendly policies that include health care, personal leave and flex time.

"We have a teamwork approach. Job performance goes up, efficiencies improve, mistakes occur less often, we work together to create a quality product, when we are committed to each other. The fear that having respect for employees' personal lives will lower the bottom line of a company is outmoded and irrational," Ms. Berner said.

"As for single mothers," Ms. Berner added, "The ones I know take their jobs very seriously."

As it turned out, in two of her job interviews, Kiki was not asked questions about marriage or kids, and in both cases Kiki was offered a job. She works today for one of those employers.

HB 352 (sponsored by state Rep. Craig Dally, R-Monroe County) and SB 440 must be passed by the end of November or the bills will die in committee. Ms. Orie told me she would re-introduce SB 440 if necessary, but how long can this go on?

Cindia Cameron, organizing director of 9to5, a national association for working women, said a lot of eyes are on Pennsylvania right now. As one of 28 states without protections against maternal profiling, the commonwealth could influence the rest of the country not only on job discrimination, but also on a host of other issues critical to mothers, such as child care, health care and family leave. "If this legislation passes, Pennsylvania has the potential to start a crucial chain reaction," Ms. Cameron said.

Kiki and her campaign represent two of the most important things I have come to understand about mothers: 1) They want to leave the world a little better than they found it, and 2) When mothers set their minds to something, they get it done.

It is up to all of us, not just moms, to get it done, to call our legislators and tell them that HB 352 and SB 440 need to become law because doing away with discrimination would make Pennsylvania better for everybody. And this would be a perfect time for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and his new Women's Commission to weigh in.

As long-time readers of my blog are well aware, I live in Oregon, not in Pennsylvania. Still, I believe this is an issue that affects all Americans, everywhere, and I urge voters in that state to contact their legislators and urge them to pass HB 352 and SB 440. I find it absolutely unconscionable that single mothers are being forced onto welfare in order to feed their kids; mothers who are more than willing and able to contribute positively to the workforce, but are being barred by maternal profiling. In the end, it is our tax dollars shouldering the misconceptions and outright bias of these employers who begin interviews with potential female employees with questions like "Do you have kids" and "Are you married," questions I highly doubt they are asking the male applicants. It is gender bias, plain and simple...and it should be illegal.

Pennsylanvia lawmakers: do the right thing. Help the mothers in your state provide for their children by passing these bills. Because it is abundantly clear that if you don't, you'll be providing for those kids through welfare instead...and robbing the state of a workforce that is both determined, capable and desperate to prove itself. Pass these bills. It's the right thing to do.

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