Working Parents Get Big Boost From New York City

You can no longer get fired in New York City for needing to take your child to the doctor. 

The New York City Council passed legislation on Wednesday evening that adds caregivers — which would include parents or anyone who needs to tend to a sick relative — to the list of groups that are legally protected from workplace discrimination under the city’s civil rights laws.

The law is incredibly vague — it just says that “caregivers” are a protected class. What this means practically is that employers can’t fire someone, nor can they refuse to hire them, for having a responsibility for someone else. 

This is a huge win for women in the workplace, who are the most likely to be in this position.

It’s fairly intuitive that a person shouldn’t be fired for taking the time off she’s accrued to care for herself or her family members. But it still happens, even in places with strong policies against it. 

For example, Washington, D.C., has a law on the books protecting pregnant workers and is currently considering mandating 16 weeks off for family leave (which would cover having a child, adopting a child, recovering from being sick or caring for another family member who was sick). And yet, there was a story Thursday in the Washington Post about a woman in the District who lost her job after her doctor ordered her on bedrest during her pregnancy

“This new law makes crystal clear that the strongest form of gender discrimination, against mothers, is illegal. This is good news for mothers and anyone who loves them,” Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at U.C. Hastings law school, told The Huffington Post.

New York City’s new measure builds on its relatively new law mandating paid sick leave for employees who work more than 80 hours a year, regardless of whether they work full- or part-time. That sick leave explicitly can be taken with little advance notice, and can be used to care for other family members who might be sick.

There’s a larger movement in policy circles to recognize and protect more types of paid leave. The general theory is that giving people (mostly women, who still do a disproportionate amount of caregiving in the United States on a largely volunteer basis) more flexibility to care for their family members is necessary if we as a society want to continue the advancement of women in the workplace. 

That means not only time for children, but also time for taking an aging parent to the doctor — something that will become increasingly important as a huge chunk of baby boomers approach old age.

Anne Marie Slaughter, CEO of the New America Foundation and former director of policy planning at the State Department, wrote a whole book on the subject, following her mega-popular Atlantic magazine cover article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Slaughter writes in the book that there needs to be an “infrastructure of care” in the United States, where such a safety net barely exists.

Discrimination of any kind is hard to prove, but a law against it is a step forward.

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