Kids Get Sick, Mothers Get Sacked


March 22, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Try to think of it as good news. The Minnesota Court of Appeals has just ruled that motherhood is not a form of misconduct. This verdict, worthy of one slightly choked cheer of approval, comes courtesy of Diane McCourtney who lost her job when her baby got sick.

No, Ms. McCourtney is not some star on the Celebrity Working Mother Circuit. She's no Meredith Vieira, who asked for an extension of her part-time gig at ''60 Minutes'' and got a pink slip instead. The Vieira story has all the glitzy elements of class and choice that get the editorial juices stirring. But the McCourtney story is more like that of Everywoman.

For Diane, 'having it all' meant having a $250-a-week job and a $60-a-week day-care bill. For her infant son James, having it all meant colds, pneumonia, earaches and pinkeye.

Diane had been a reliable clerk at Imprimis, a computer company for 11 years. But in her first four months back from maternity leave, she missed more than half her workdays. When this mother, the sole family wage-earner, was given the ax, she accepted that. What got her was when Imprimis fought her claim for unemployment benefits. The company said and the state agreed that she ''made a choice'' to place her family's interests over her employer's.

Since unemployment is only supposed to help those who lose jobs through no fault of their own, she was ineligible. Taking care of a child at home was ''misconduct'' at work. It was her fault she lost her job.

It was her fault, to be specific, that James' day-care provider couldn't take sick kids, that James' father was just recovering from back surgery and couldn't care for him, that James' grandparents were not only working but out-of-state. It was her fault that the one service around for sick kids charged twice Diane's wage and wouldn't let her interview the caregiver.

Happily, the Court of Appeals ruled in her favor: ''McCourtney's actions were motivated by a willful regard for her child's interests and not a wanton disregard of her employer's interest or lack of concern for her job.'' But hold the standing ovation until you consider the modest size of this victory. This mother didn't get her job back. She merely won the right to apply for unemployment. And she won it by proving she had no choice.

Remember the safety net? It was originally hung under two tracks, one for men, one for women. The male track included unemployment benefits for a man who lost his job. The female track included welfare for a woman who lost her husband. But see how it works in the real world now.

If a mother goes to work and leaves a sick child home without care, she's culpable for child neglect. If she stays home, she may be dismissed for job neglect.

After ''choosing'' to quit, she still faces the ''choice'' of unemployment benefits or welfare. What would have happened to Diane at the unemployment office? To get that check, you're supposed to be looking for work. If you have a sick kid and no child care, how do you prove you're in the market?

If, on the other hand, you choose welfare, in most states, some form of workfare clicks in. Sooner or later, to get the welfare check, you'll have to get into work training. In some states, the only way to afford child care is through welfare.

Go figure.

We have all these little cubbyholes marked ''unemployment'' and ''welfare,'' ''work'' and ''family.'' But the folder marked ''life'' keeps spilling all over the desk top.

The state or the employer may yet appeal Ms. McCourtney's victory to the state supreme court. They fear that any parent (read mother) with child-care problems would end up on unemployment. ''Your fault'' would become ''our problem.''

On the other hand, if it costs the state and employers to fire mothers maybe they'll work harder to keep them. Companies are already becoming more involved in child care. So, glacially, are communities. States, including Minnesota, are passing laws supporting family and medical leave. The Congress is debating a national version.

In the meantime, kids get sick and mothers get sacked. As for Everywoman McCourtney, she has something else in common with Superstar Vieira. She's pregnant again. When the twins are born, she's going to become a day-care provider.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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