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Dilemma for Parents: Neglect Your Child Or Neglect Your Job

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"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.

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