Recently New York Mets baseball player Daniel Murphy decided to take two days of paternity leave to be with his wife as she underwent a cesarean section, missing the first two games of the season. (He is allowed three days of leave under Major League Baseball rules.) Sports commentator Boomer Esiason criticized Murphy for making this decision, stating, “C-section before the season starts. I need to be at opening day. I’m sorry, this is what makes our money.” Esiason later apologized days after public outcry about his statement, but he was not alone in his sentiment. Another radio host, Mike Francesa, said of Murphy’s decision, “You are a Major League Baseball player. You can hire a nurse.”
Callous comments are sometimes the most revealing. Esiason revealed support for the notion that men have absolutely no role in the birth of a child, in caring for their spouse or their child, in care work, period. And, by extension, the assumption that the care responsibilities for the infant and the mother can be handled by the “nurse” (a female-dominated field) furthers the rigid notion that women should be exclusively saddled with all care work.
Looking at paternity leave policies across the board, these beliefs are overwhelmingly guiding our practice around who performs care work. Men have far less parental leave than women do, in part because corporate and public policy and culture still tells fathers the only place they really belong is at their day job. Eighty-five percent of U.S. firms and 94 percent of states do not offer any paid leave for men. By contrast, 50 percent of businesses offer paid maternity leave.
Some larger firms have begun to alter their policies. Yahoo! President and CEO Marissa Mayer recently doubled her employees’ paternity and maternity leave. Overall, however, the paternity leave policy disparity states loud and clear that dads don’t matter.
Why does this policy disparity exist? At its root, Murphy’s mere two-day stint (often less time than a player might take for an injury) at full-time caregiving is not viewed as worthwhile or productive only because it doesn’t directly benefit Murphy’s employer. People who take a reprieve from their day jobs to raise a child or care for a family member are not viewed as productive laborers during those periods — even though their time is being put toward the challenge of rearing a child and caring for a spouse.
The domestic workers’ movement is beginning to help shift this belief. In a 2012 report entitled “Home Economics,” the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance (NDWA) points out, “At the end of the domestic worker’s day, no durable goods or consumer products have been created or distributed; neither the flow of capital nor the accumulation of profits has been directly served. Instead, a child is another day older and still safe and healthy. An elderly parent is well fed and attended to. The absence of dirt on a kitchen floor is silent witness to a laboring hand. In a capital-dominant world, work that does not appear to produce value or facilitate its exchange is devalued and rendered socially invisible. Yet this labor, whether performed by a family member or by an employee, supports and subsidizes all other productive work.”
By not offering consistent paid leave, our economy effectively cuts people choose to take on care work out of the system, considers them irrelevant. There are examples of how this is beginning to shift, however. NDWA’s work nationally has led to increased recognition and labor protections for domestic workers — nannies, caregivers and other jobs that are dominated by women. Three states, Hawaii, California, and New York, have enacted legislation protecting domestic workers who have historically been excluded from labor laws. The Obama administration also changed federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulations that historically excluded care workers who live inside of homes from overtime protection.
And in some places, paid leave is getting traction, too. Three states now have paid family leave policies — California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. (Washington also has a paid leave policy that was never funded.) There is an effort at the federal level to enact a national paid family leave program (though it is held hostage by House Republican leadership). Several cities are now enacting paid sick day ordinances, most recently New York City strengthened its existing paid sick leave policy. A major argument against such policies is the “cost” employers and taxpayers must incur to subsidize paid labor. Such programs are rarely perceived as an investment, even though existing paid leave programs have shown at least short-term return in terms of employee retention/eliminating turnover expenses.
Shifting beliefs expressed by Esiason, Francesa and others with respect to paternity leave is a long road. It requires a fundamental re-thinking of what type of activities are productive and worthy of monetary benefit. It requires a shift in thinking around public benefits and why publicly subsidizing care responsibilities as well as paying overtime for care workers is not “too costly,” but instead finally values work that helps all of us in ways that our day jobs just don’t.
Sheila Bapat is a former employment attorney who now writes about gender and economic justice. Her book about the U.S. domestic workers’ movement will be released by Ig Publishing in 2014.