OPINION: A rescue package for working women

Wall Street tycoons behave irresponsibly, bring the country to financial brink, hold out their hands for an 11-figure bailout — and lobbyists applaud that as a rescue.

Women achieve daily miracles fulfilling responsibilities to their employers and their families, ask for modest protections so they won't be fired for having a sick kid — and lobbyists denounce that as mandates. What's wrong with this picture?

Not so long ago, we were surrounded by ashtrays and smokers wherever we worked, ate or traveled. Babies sat on our laps in the car. Most paints were lead-based.

In each case, public health experts alerted us to the dangers. Values shifted; what once seemed normal no longer met the test of public acceptability. Groups of concerned citizens petitioned government representatives to do their job and set new standards.

From child labor to Jim Crow to excluding those with a disability, our government has stepped in to end long-time practices. Each time they did so because popular sentiment said, 'Enough.'

Once again, there is a need for the government to protect its citizens. This time it's to make sure that workers are not penalized for being good parents.

We have a giant disconnect between what family members need and what the workplace provides.

It flies in the face of our values, and hurts our families and businesses, when workers can't afford to take time to care for a new baby or a seriously ill family member. And it jeopardizes us all when people are compelled to go to work and cook our food or care for our children when they themselves are sick.

Each time we try to advance, opponents rise up to tell us the sky will fall, business will flee. Consider this statement:

'[This bill] would create chaos in business never yet known to us ... Let me make clear that I am not opposed to the [goals of reform] ... What I do take exception to is any approach & which is utterly impractical and in operation would be much more destructive than constructive to the very purposes it is designed to serve.'

That's Ohio Congressman Arthur Lamneck, arguing in 1937 against proposed rules outlawing child labor and establishing a minimum wage. More than 70 years later, these standards clearly aren't what threaten the American economy. But lack of minimum standards really is harming American families.

I've been thinking a lot about parents I know of three lovely children. Let's call them Scott and Kate. After Scott's job was outsourced to Taiwan, the couple lost their home. Since then, Scott got another job. Recently, they learned their daughter has cancer. Both parents have family leave and understanding employers. The problem is the leave is unpaid. They don't know how they can make ends meet with the double whammy of losing income while on leave and having to cough up the 20 percent health insurance co-pay.

What hit me the hardest was when Kate said, 'I feel like I failed my family.'

Kate and Scott have done nothing but work hard and take good care of their children. That should be enough. The failure here is a government refusing to bring the workplace into sync with 21st century realities.

Providing incentives to employers who move jobs overseas rather than those who grow them here — that's the failure. Allowing health care providers and insurers to jack up prices without regard for the impact on workers and their families, or on employers struggling to keep their heads above water — that's the failure. Opposing legislation that would bar employers from firing a worker who needs to take a day off to care for a sick child or parent — that's the failure. So is blocking progress on bills that would provide income for workers during family leave. And even worse, telling workers these are personal problems they have to work out on their own — that's an outrage.

The current bailout of irresponsible financial actors makes one thing crystal clear: those who demand smaller government are quite happy to have government intervention in their own behalf.

It's high time we demand government do its job: set and enforce rules that benefit not just the rich and powerful, but the vast majority of American workers and their families.

Ellen Bravo teaches women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. This article was distributed by American Forum, mediaforum.org.