Locked doors. It’s one of the many reasons that 146 workers – mainly young immigrant women – died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City 100 years ago today. Even though great progress has been made since then, workers today are trapped by a different kind of locked door: public and workplace policies that too often are unfair and force workers to make impossible choices between their caregiving responsibilities and their economic security.
Back in 1911, women were considered the valuable stewards of the next generation. So when more than 100 women perished in a fire on the job, policymakers felt extra pressure to enact protections to address obviously dangerous and damaging workplaces. The now-ubiquitous signs we see requiring doors to remain unlocked during business hours, along with significant safety and health regulations, are manifestations of the reforms and protections that resulted from the fire. The tragedy helped to galvanize efforts that led to many labor reforms we know take for granted, including minimum wage and overtime laws.
Thankfully, today, working mothers and fathers – all of whom are responsible for raising the next generation – are no longer literally locked in. There are still industries where the enforcement of health and safety standards falls far short but, for most workers, physical working conditions are much improved.
Today, it is another kind of barrier that threatens workers and their families. Tens of millions of workers in the United States are trapped by workplace policies and practices that make it impossible for them to honor their commitments to their families. The health, safety and well-being of workers and families are harmed every day by rigid schedules, punitive policies for arriving at work late or leaving early, retribution or termination for needing a sick day, and the absence of a national policy that requires job-protected paid family leave. Too often, working parents face an impossible choice between caring for a feverish child and their job. Too often, they are fired if they refuse to work overtime because they need to pick a child up from daycare before it closes. In this economy, the fear of losing a job or losing pay means workers have no practical choice but to remain at work.
To make matters worse, today’s working women are trapped by a persistent wage gap borne of discriminatory practices, subjective policies and our failure to strengthen federal equal pay protections.
Just as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire led progressive policymakers in the early 20th century to recognize that new labor laws were key to protecting workers’ health and safety and the well-being of the next generation, the plight of working families – under attack by lawmakers in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and elsewhere – should lead progressive lawmakers today to the same conclusion.
A national public policy providing a minimum standard of paid sick days would ensure that a working mother or father could care for a sick child without risking their job or losing much-needed income. A national paid family and medical leave insurance system would help workers care for a new baby or sick parent, or for their own serious health condition, without jeopardizing their family’s livelihood. Common-sense reforms around scheduling would eliminate the problems caused by workplaces designed for the 1960s in a 21st century world. And federal legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act would bring working women that much closer to fair, discrimination-free workplaces.
In a nation that talks about family values, it is time to value our citizens as responsible workers and responsible family members. On this 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, let us dedicate ourselves to the next wave of reform: creating public policies that address the needs of today’s workforce.
Read more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the legacy of the last survivor here.