When I look back on my childhood, a lot of what I remember was instability from my mother’s job. Employment instability spilled over into every aspect of our life and made it unpredictable, from finances to child care to bare necessities like food and housing.

My mother juggled an incredible yet impossible act: she raised me alone while working ten- to twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week in low-wage jobs in order to support our family. Very few employers accommodated her parenting responsibilities. She had no choice but to switch jobs frequently, and choose between caring for me whenever I got sick, or keeping her job.

Today, those circumstances seem absurd and outrageous to me: a working mother needs to work to keep her family out of poverty. In order to work, she needs reliable, affordable child care. Yet the workplace punishes her for having child care responsibilities.

Nationwide, there are millions of low-wage workers who struggle in similar ways.

According to the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, half of the 10 million workers in the restaurant industry are women, two million of whom are mothers and one million are single mothers.

Restaurant workers have unpredictable work schedules, which makes it even more difficult for them to schedule reliable child care. Workers may also experience negative consequences in the workplace (e.g., verbal abuse, negative job evaluations, and even unemployment) when trying to fulfill their family responsibilities.

Our working families are stretched thin, both in terms of their time and resources. Two-thirds of children live in families where both parents or the single-parent work full-time. As many as three-quarters of working parents express that they lack time with their children, and an overwhelming majority of workers (both low-wage and high-wage) express the need for overall workplace flexibility. In short, families need a way to balance work and family responsibilities without risking their employment and economic security.

In some places across the country, there are laws on the books that help parents bridge this gap:

  • In California, workers have access to the Paid Family Leave (PFL) program that provides up to six weeks of partial wage replacement for workers who need to take time off to care for an ill family member or bond with a new child. To date, over 1.6 million workers have benefited from the PFL program in California.
  • San Francisco’s new Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance would have helped my mom tremendously. It ensures that workers have the right to request changes to their work schedules so that they may care for their families, and prohibits discrimination based on a person’s caregiver status.
  • Nationally, there is new progress with the introduction of the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, a federal Paid Family Leave legislation similar to California’s. It gives me hope that we may actually be on the cusp of addressing head on the needs of millions of working parents, like my mom. If this passes, the U.S. would bring its policies in line with those in other countries, who recognized long ago that they can’t support their children without also supporting their working parents.

Work flexibility can become the norm with more policies that support family leave, caregiving, and flexible work options.

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