Dilemma for Parents: Neglect Your Child Or Neglect Your Job

"Sweatshop" is hardly a word most people use to describe the sleek offices where educated professionals work. But in the eyes of one professional woman in Massachusetts, corporate sweatshops are on the rise as employers demand longer and longer hours from salaried employees.

For single parents in particular, she warns, the pattern can have sad consequences for young children.

Six years ago, when the woman was hired for a managerial post in a high-tech firm near Boston, she told her bosses that as the divorced mother of a seven-year-old son, she couldn't work past 5:30 p.m. most days. They agreed. Yet from the beginning she worked from 8:15 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., with no lunch hour. Her performance reviews were excellent, as was her relationship with her manager.

Then one day she had to stay home because her son was sick. Ten days later, her manager placed her on probation and gave her a critical review. About the same time, the company announced that a merger would require everyone to work until 9 or 10 p.m. five evenings a week, plus all day Saturday, indefinitely. The mother offered to stay late several nights, then take work home on other evenings and weekends. Two weeks later she was fired.

She sued her employer but lost in lower courts. On May 7, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will hear her appeal. It is the first case in the nation to raise the issue of whether an employer can fire a professional or management employee who is a single parent because she refuses to work long hours that would compel her to neglect her child.

The woman's attorney, Harvey Schwartz of Boston, explains that public policy in Massachusetts requires parents not to neglect or abuse a child. Yet corporate policy that forces a single parent to work 80 hours a week constitutes neglect, he argues. Legally, public policy supersedes corporate policy.

Mr. Schwartz notes that wage and hour laws protect hourly employees from overtime abuse. But as more people get into salaried positions, he says, "there's no protection at all."

The woman recently asked her son, now 13, what he remembers about the months when she worked long days and rarely saw him. He replied, "It was awful."

In an ironic twist, after she lost her job, the only way she could find to stay home with her son was to take care of babies for other working parents. She cared for one infant from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., five days a week - exactly the kind of "corporate sweatshop" hours she wanted to avoid for her own child.

Whatever the legal outcome, the woman - who requests anonymity because she is still looking for a part-time professional job - already savors one victory of sorts. A few years ago, Harvard Business School asked her for permission to publish her case. They also invited her to speak to the class. Afterwards, a professor wrote to her saying students found her case the "most compelling" they had heard.

"I know a couple hundred MBA candidates from Harvard are going out there having studied this case and debated it," she says. "They understand what the ramifications of abuse of overtime can be to the children of parents who are struggling to make a living. It was a way to impact their attitudes going into their careers about how they will treat their employees or run their businesses. That was my way of making a small difference."

Balancing the bottom-line demands of employers with the heart-tugging needs of children presents daily dilemmas for bosses and parents. It will take far more than one determined mother to change corporate practices.

Still, her precedent-setting case is a start. By forcing companies to confront questions about work schedules, her legal challenge could prompt eventual solutions that will satisfy workers and managers alike. If that happens, she will have made far more than a "small difference."

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