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Paid family leave policies show corporate America’s disdain for low-wage workers and their babies

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Becoming a parent is one more aspect of life poisoned by economic inequality in the United States, with people who are paid more than $75,000 a year twice as likely to get paid leave as people who are paid less than $30,000. And even companies that have touted their parental leave programs leave many of their workers out, giving paid leave to their salaried staff at corporate headquarters but not to the workers standing behind the cash registers or making the cappuccinos or fried chicken. A new report from Paid Leave for the United States highlights the inequality within major U.S. companies:

  • Starbucks has one of the most unequal policies—they provide 18 weeks of fully-paid leave for new mothers and 12 weeks fully paid for new fathers in corporate headquarters, but only six weeks for birth moms who are in-store employees (like baristas) and nothing for dads or adoptive parents in this employment category. Starbucks employs ~5,000 people in its corporate headquarters and ~150,000 in stores; meaning their highly-touted policy affects about 3% of their total U.S. workforce.
  • The nation’s largest private employer, Walmart, provides twelve weeks of paid leave for birth mothers who are corporate employees—but only 6-8 weeks at partial pay for birth moms who are among the 1.2 million hourly employees in their stores – if they work full time.
  • Yum! Brands offers 18 weeks paid parental leave to birth mothers, and 6 weeks to dads and adoptive parents who work in the corporate office only. Field employees, who work for franchises such as KFC and Pizza Hut, receive no paid family leave.

A few companies do have equal leave policies for their corporate and frontline workers: Ikea, Levi’s, Nordstrom, Nike (though it leaves out part-time employees), Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Hilton, and Apple.

Just six percent of low-wage workers have any paid leave at all, which is why a quarter of new mothers are back on the job within 10 days. That means that not only are new mothers leaving their newborn babies, they’re working before they are physically recovered from childbirth.

 And no paid leave can also mean no flexibility even for emergencies; a Walmart worker named Jasmine Dixon told PL+US that:

“I had no paid leave and had to go back to work at Walmart two weeks after childbirth. I took Zyon to his first 2-week doctor’s check-up and found out that he needed to go back to the hospital urgently. They took him away in an ambulance – I was terrified for him, and that I might be risking my job at Walmart by coming in late that day. I called my manager to let them know I had to go with my baby to the children’s hospital, but it didn’t matter – my store manager penalized me for missing work.”

This decision should not be left to individual companies. The baby of the worker behind the cash register deserves parents at home with her just as much as the baby of the worker behind the computer. Workers shouldn’t have to hope that they’re working at Ikea rather than Starbucks when they have a baby. Paid family leave should be the law of the United States as it is the law of most countries.

This blog originally appeared on DailyKos.com on May 18, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and labor editor since 2011.

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Starbucks Brews Challenge for Labor

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Whassup with Starbucks and labor? My research for Wrestling With Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino plunged me below the foam and the fury to discover a company rife with contradictions, and nowhere more clearly than in its dealings with workers.

In contrast to Wal-Mart, Starbucks is considered a leader in socially responsible business practices. It was an early adopter of health care for domestic partners, pioneered benefits for part-timers, has a vividly multiracial workforce (including top officials), emphasizes training, and often promotes from within, although the opportunities are diminishing along with the company’s stock price. In other words, when it comes to how it treats its workers, Starbucks is far better than the miserable norm.

What Wal-Mart and Starbucks share, though is a baseline hourly wage that generally hovers between seven and ten dollars. They also share an antipathy to unions. “We’re not anti-union, we’re pro-partner,” is the official Starbucks mantra; but while there is some validity to the latter assertion, the first part stretches credibility. Over the years, Starbucks has vigorously fought union organizing drives, sometimes to the point of illegality. As Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote in his book, Pour Your Heart Into It (Hyperion, 1997), he wanted Starbucks workers “to believe in their hearts that management trusted them and treated them with respect. I was convinced that under my leadership, employees would come to realize that I would listen to their concerns. If they had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union.”

Indeed, it often seems that today’s unions are ill suited to meet the needs of younger workers or the challenges of organizing in the global economy. But as Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union rightly observes, “You look at a guy like Howard Schultz and you say, ‘Okay, you’re a really good employer, but you’re a corporation.’ When does somebody come into Starbucks and say, ‘these 50,000 dollars for manager salaries are too high; and these health care costs are really getting out of control….’ What is it that institutionalizes the good practices so it’s not noblesse oblige?”

What complicates the problem is that workplace democracy—one of the most important values that unions add—is not a money-making proposition. Yet, alongside blunting economic disparity, it is perhaps the foremost reason for unions to exist. For authentic worker issues to be incorporated into the debates over the global economy, not to mention the outcome, workers must have a collective presence of their own, one that transcends the individual workplace and has the potential to encompass the global marketplace. No matter how benevolent Starbucks might be, it’s not going to explicitly argue on behalf of worker concerns. Some of what’s good for General Motors or Starbucks might also benefit employees. But some of what makes life sustainable for workers, be it living wages, or health and safety regulations, can easily be sacrificed to corporate bottom lines unless there is a countervailing demand.

Already, with the plummeting economy, efforts to make Starbucks leaner and meaner are affecting the workforce, as “partners” are feeling more like disposable workers. When I first started my research, an astonishing number of employees gave the company kudos despite its flaws. Today, not so much. Recently, I took copies of my Starbucks book to some of the baristas and store managers I had interviewed. “I don’t know,” one of them told me. “When I started six years ago, this was the best job of its kind. Now it’s all about the money. It’s like nobody cares about us any more.”

That’s a real problem for Starbucks, and for all of us. As long as we mandate the sustainability of capital and leave worker rights to paternalism, our conscience will be at risk.

About the Author: Kim Fellner is the author of Wrestling With Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino (Rutgers University Press, July). She works in the labor movement.

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