Four years ago, when Murphy Brown found herself pregnant and single, conservative politicians saw her as an election-year symbol of everything that appeared to be wrong with the American family. "Family values" became a campaign rallying cry for both political parties, with the beleaguered Murphy serving as a convenient one-woman morality play.
Today Murphy's son Avery is four, and her TV sitcom life has moved on to more humorous subjects. In real life, family values have returned as a presidential campaign theme, although with a slight difference. This time, politicians are indirectly acknowledging that not all of what ails the family results from moral decisions and domestic arrangements. There's a welcome realization on the campaign trail that the workplace also has a direct bearing on family well-being, and that parents, married and single, need more help from employers than they're getting.
Two new proposals seek to give parents more time with children. A Republican-sponsored bill, the Working Families Flexibility Act, would allow employees to receive paid compensatory time off instead of overtime wages. Each worker could accumulate 240 hours of such time. Unions oppose the measure, fearing that employers would dictate how workers would be remunerated for overtime work.
This week President Clinton unveiled a similar proposal, an expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act that he calls "Family Leave II." It would allow workers to take up to 80 hours of overtime compensation as paid time rather than wages. Employees would also receive 24 hours of unpaid leave each year for family duties, such as parent-teacher conferences, medical appointments, and assistance for older relatives. The original family leave act gives employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a child or relative.
The need for more family time becomes apparent in a new national survey by Yankelovich Partners for Family Service America in Milwaukee. Although 41 percent of working parents say they spend more time with their children than they did two or three years ago, 42 percent say they spend less time with their spouse. Nearly a third report more tension in their relationships.
Even with the three-year-old Family and Medical Leave Act, the dream of a kinder, gentler workplace, where employers understand and tolerate family-related absences, has been slow to materialize. Many parents - mothers in particular - still tremble when they must take time off for a snow day, a child's illness, or other family needs. Even managers who might otherwise be sympathetic may find it hard to be magnanimous about time off if their department has been downsized, leaving fewer people to do the work. As a result, a don't-rock-the-boat attitude may prevail.
That attitude will have to change if the new "comp time" proposals ever become a reality. But even without legislative changes, adjustments in corporate culture are inevitable.
Lotte Bailyn, a visiting professor at Radcliffe College, outlined the need during a seminar called "The New Economic Equation," sponsored by the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute. She said, "The standard way that the work-family question is being asked in standard companies is: 'What can we do for families to ensure that our employees meet the requirements of the current work and the restructured work forces?' I want to turn that question around and ask: 'What can we do with the organization and culture of work to make it possible for employees to live more 'livable' lives in both the area of work and family?'"
Murphy Brown's scriptwriters conveniently leave little Avery out of most episodes, largely freeing Murphy from everyday domestic emergencies. That is not an option for her viewers and all the other working Americans who are trying to be conscientious employees, attentive parents, and caring spouses. For them, creating a "more livable life" at work and at home will require the best efforts of non-Hollywood scriptwriters - the politicians and bosses whose laws and policies affect millions of families, for better or worse.