Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

September 6, 2005



Labor Day: striving for equality when the holiday is over

by Thomas F. Coleman
This year's Labor Day celebrations gave rise to parades, speeches, picnics, and back-yard barbeques throughout the nation.  The holiday provides an opportunity for people to relax or play, regardless of their race, national origin, sex, age, marital status, or household configuration.

The Department of Labor says that this end-of-summer holiday "is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country."

Now that the holiday is over and the nation is settling down to business-as-usual, it may surprise Americans to learn that for millions of workers "business-as-usual" involves a pattern of legalized discrimination against them.

Employment discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities and women is illegal under many federal and state labor laws.  For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and the Equal Pay Act protect minority workers and women from discrimination in hiring, firing, promotion, and compensation, including benefits programs.

But what about workers who are unmarried or without children? Do they have cause to celebrate equal employment opportunities and equal pay when the Labor Day festivities fade into memory? 

Not really.

The Census Bureau released statistics last week showing that 44 million American households, some 40 percent of the nation, consist of unmarried people without children.

The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, when both married and unmarried workers are taken into account, some 64 percent of the nation's workforce does not have a child at home.  The bureau also reports that 44.7 percent of all workers are not married.

So how are these unmarried employees and those without children treated by their employers in the 12 months between Labor Day celebrations? 

Not very well.

What does the government do to protect singles, domestic partners, and those without children from discrimination in the workplace? 

Not very much.

Federal civil rights laws do not prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of marital status or family status.  Half of the states have no legal remedies either.

So what's the gripe?  Why do workers who are unmarried or without children feel they are being treated unfairly and need legal protections from discrimination?

Here are few examples which people have shared with me.

A single teacher complains that her employer pays thousands of dollars more for a "family plan" of married teachers with kids at home than they do for her own individual plan.  Most employers violate the principle of "equal pay for equal work" when they give more benefits compensation to some workers and less to others, all on account of their marital or family status.

A single woman is upset because she sees other employees getting months of leave, sometimes paid leave, for maternity purposes or to care for an ill spouse or child.  She was denied long-term leave to care for her sister who is dying of cancer, even though her sister is her only close relative since her parents are deceased and she has no spouse or children of her own. 

The Family and Medical Leave Act gives preference to some family relationships and ignores the needs of others.  It looks like Congress is paying lip service to "family values" and failing to respect family diversity.

A single man is furious when he receives an invitation to a company picnic which says that all employees are invited and "feel free to bring your spouse and children."  His immediate family consists of his father and his sister who live with him, but they are not allowed to attend the company event.

An unmarried flight attendant protests that if she dies before retirement, her retirement benefits will revert back to the retirement fund itself and her sister, who is the named beneficiary, would not receive a penny.  However, if the worker had been married or had minor children at home, they would have received survivor benefits if she died prior to retiring.

Singles also complain about being required to work overtime, or being pressured to work on holidays, while those with kids leave early due to child care needs or get preference for holiday time off because of their "family" demands.

The list could go on.

While there is no legislation pending in Congress or in any of the states to prohibit such discriminatory practices, some companies are sensing the growing resentment by unmarried and childless/childfree workers over such favoritism. 

For example, a growing number of employers are now giving each worker a set number of days for Personal Time Off, regardless of marital status or household configuration.  Also, many employers have moved away from "family friendly" workplace programs to more generic "work/life" programs, providing employees with more benefits that are usable by everyone.

But despite some modest voluntary changes by some employers, the fact remains that millions of unmarried Americans would benefit much more by having legal protections against marital status discrimination in the workplace than they do from a one-day holiday.

Perhaps the next speeches that politicians make to pay tribute to the American worker should be on the floor of the House or Senate promoting an expansion of the Equal Pay Act or the Equal Employment Opportunity Act to protect 58 million unmarried workers from unfair discrimination.  Now that would be a real tribute.

Unmarried America 2005

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.