Two recent stories in the news have put a spotlight on the ways in which blind corporate allegiance to the bottom line can harm working families. The first story concerns the multibillion-dollar supermarket chain Whole Foods, which fired a female worker for taking a day off to care for her special-needs child during a snowstorm that closed Chicago schools. Forced to choose between going to work and leaving her child alone, Rhiannon Broschat did what any good parent would do—and lost her job.
“If I could have found adequate childcare, I would have made it to work,” Broschat told The Nation. “I would love to see this changed—rescind this policy or pass a regulation like paid sick days. Everybody should have those, especially if you have children.”
Broschat, of course, is right. Unfortunately, she is one of millions of American workers, most of them on the lower end of the pay scale, who get no paid sick days. Such a stingy system ignores the realities of today’s working families—kids get sick, schools close because of bad weather, and a host of other critical needs and emergencies arise—not to mention the public health hazard of workers hauling themselves into their jobs despite fevers, aches, chills, and contagious viruses and germs.
The other news story concerns media giant AOL, whose CEO Tim Armstrong decided to restrict retirement benefits for the company supposedly because of high insurance costs paid out for two babies who needed intensive care. “We paid a million dollars each to make sure those babies were OK in general,” Armstrong said. “And those are the things that add up into our benefits cost. So when we had the final decision about what benefits to cut because of the increased healthcare costs … I made the decision to basically change the 401(k) plan.”
Never mind that Armstrong made $12 million in 2012, or that AOL profits have been soaring. In order to zap any hint of weakness to the company’s bottom line, Armstrong decided to cut retirement benefits and then blamed his action on two babies.
After reading Armstrong’s comments, the mother of one of the babies told her story in an essay for Slate. Deanna Fei, whose husband is an editor at AOL, went into unexpected labor when she was five months pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl who weighed less than two pounds. Fei describes the wrenching anxiety and terror she felt as her tiny daughter underwent innumerable procedures and fought to live. Fei doesn’t challenge Armstrong’s claim that it was expensive to save her daughter’s life. Here is what bothers her:
I take issue with how he reduced my daughter to a “distressed baby” who cost the company too much money. How he blamed the saving of her life for his decision to scale back employee benefits. How he exposed the most searing experience of our lives, one that my husband and I still struggle to discuss with anyone but each other, for no other purpose than an absurd justification for corporate cost-cutting.
Fei goes on:
… the hardest thing to bear has been the whiff of judgment in Armstrong’s statement, as if we selfishly gobbled up an obscenely large slice of the collective health care pie. Yes, we had a preemie in intensive care. This was certainly not our intention. … we experienced exactly the kind of unforeseeable, unpreventable medical crisis that any health plan is supposed to cover. Isn’t that the whole point of health insurance?
Well, yes it is.
It should be said that after a firestorm of bad publicity, Armstrong apologized and reinstated the former retirement plan. As for Whole Foods, they have not rehired Broschat, despite protests on her behalf.
The phrase “family values” spills from the mouths of many conservative politicians and activists who fervently believe that families are the bedrock of our nation. Many of these same conservatives also believe in an unfettered free market. But when family values bump up against the corporate bottom line—and it happens every day in conflicts that lack the publicity of Whole Foods or AOL—families are the ones who suffer. That is not good for families, business, or our country.
Conservatives clash with liberals and progressives on a great many things these days. But surely one point of agreement should be the need to strengthen family values as they are lived in the 21st century.
That means providing paid sick days so workers are not forced to choose between family and job. It also means providing decent retirement and health insurance benefits. The Affordable Care Act, by expanding access to affordable, quality health care for millions of Americans, is a huge step in the right direction.
Our global economy is a highly complex system. But some things are simple. One of them is this: A free-market economy should promote human flourishing, not sacrifice workers for the bottom line.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.