Respond to this Article December 2005

The Joy of Flex

Employees shouldn't need an excuse to get flexible work schedules. Employers should need a reason not to give them.

By Karen Kornbluh

A generation or more ago, it would have been impossible to envision the life of the American worker as it is lived today. A flood of women into the workforce has fundamentally changed the face of employment, largely for the better. Families are better able to increase their household income, and companies have benefited from the ability to tap female talent. But at home, working Americans have a dwindling amount of time to spend with their families. The parent who was home in the afternoon when kids came back from school, or cared for family members--young or old--who fell ill, is now hard at work. A snow day now creates a parent's Hobson's choice: leave a child alone or call in sick and maybe risk losing your job.

The stress over how to strike a balance between work and family worries parents. A 2002 report by the Families and Work Institute found that 45 percent of employees say that work and family responsibilities interfere with each other, and 67 percent of working parents say they do not have enough time with their children. But it's not a problem limited to individual families--the work-family puzzle concerns their fellow Americans as well. Last year, pollsters Anna Greenberg and Bill McInturff found that more than three-quarters of likely voters feel it is difficult for parents to earn enough and still have time for their families; 84 percent agreed that children are shortchanged when their parents have to work long hours.

The failure of the workplace to make accommodations for working parents is one of the biggest unmet demands of American voters. Shrewdly, Republicans understand this, but they have used it in order to promote a solution that doesn't solve the problem. During last year's presidential campaign, George W. Bush made a direct appeal to working mothers, running an ad in the final weeks that featured a mother driving home from work and growing increasingly exasperated as the radio told her that John Kerry would raise her taxes. To these mothers, Bush offered so-called "comp-time," which he claimed would help them balance work and family responsibilities by letting them choose time off instead of overtime pay as compensation for extra hours worked. But under Bush's plan, workers who accrued comp-time wouldn't have the freedom to decide when they would use it. Employers could make workers redeem the time when it was convenient for them, not for the employees.

There are, however, strategies that do give parents a way to both work and retain control over their own schedules without shortchanging their families--everything from telecommuting to job-sharing to flextime. But these arrangements are primarily available to those with well-paying, white-collar jobs; more than half of all workers have no control over how their hours are scheduled. This may be the reason why politicians and policymakers have, for the most part, failed to focus on the work-family balance issue in a serious way. Not everyone has the same kind of malleable--if still busy--schedules they enjoy.

As the expectations and demands of the workplace have expanded over the past few decades, we have allowed onerous hours and schedules to become the norm, and we have assumed that employers have the right to demand that workers adapt to these harsh schedules or face the consequences. It's time to change the presumption that accepting a job means handing control of your life over to your employer. There is a clear role for the government here: expanding federal support for childcare and after-care, for instance. But there is also something that government can do that wouldn't be costly to the federal budget, something that employer groups would have a hard time opposing, and that is already working in the United Kingdom--empower workers to ask for flexible scheduling themselves.

My job, my time

American politicians aren't the only ones who have to worry about appealing to soccer moms. Since the mid-1990s, the New Labour agenda has reflected an attempt to identify and address the concerns of working mothers--and fathers. Five years ago, Tony Blair's government introduced an initiative intended to give working parents more flexibility without impinging on business competitiveness: the "Work-Life Balance Campaign."

The policy, which went into effect in 2003, works like this: Any parent with one or more children under the age of six, who has worked at least 26 consecutive weeks, has the right to file a written request with his or her employer for a change in working hours--be that in the form of compressed hours, flex-time, telecommuting, job-sharing, shift-working, or staggered hours. The employee must explain exactly how the proposed schedule would work and offer solutions to any inconvenience that might be caused to the employer. For their part, employers are required to meet with any worker who has filed such a request within four weeks to discuss the proposed plan, and they must notify the employee of a decision within two weeks of that meeting.

This is a philosophical shift from the assumption that employers always have the right to dictate hours and employees are always required to accept the schedules they are assigned. But while it is fundamentally pro-worker, the policy is not anti-business. While workers may request a change in their schedules, employers are not obligated to approve the request. They may in fact refuse for a number of broad reasons, including the fact that an altered schedule would impose additional costs on the employer or harm a business' ability to meet consumer demand.

Today, the "Right to Request" policy is considered a great success by British businesses, workers, and the government. After the first year, nearly one-quarter of all eligible employees--approximately 800,000 parents--successfully reduced or rearranged their work hours. Out of all of the requests that were filed, 86 percent were granted either partially or in full. And the country's Association of Human Resources Managers found that most employers reported no significant problems in complying with the new legislation.

How did the British manage to take an antagonistic negotiation and turn it into a policy hailed by both employers and employees? For one thing, they cast the initiative as a cooperative venture, one through which productivity and families stood to benefit. Before the policy went into effect, the government launched a massive public education campaign aimed at convincing employers that happy employees are more productive employees. They encouraged the formation of an organization called Employers for Work-Life Balance, which allows businesses to share their solutions (or "best practices") for flexible scheduling. In addition, the government set aside funds to give as grants to employers who want to hire a consultant to help them implement the policy. The fact that the United Kingdom has strong labor unions and universal health care played a major role as well.

By requiring employers to explain in writing their reasons for declining a request for flexible work-time, the initiative also leverages a powerful social force: shame. Now employers must publicly state what they would prefer to keep quiet and unsaid. It's one thing to believe that business goals are more important than employee schedules; it's quite another to state for the record that you'd rather Jane didn't pick her children up from school because you prefer holding staff meetings at six in the evening. By throwing daylight onto some of the unreasonable burdens that have been placed on employees without any debate and without their agreement, the initiative creates a real dialogue between employers and employees.

Courting the wife vote

It's not a secret that Democrats have been losing ground among married women. Despite John Kerry's health-care plan, despite his message that Republican policies were squeezing the middle class, and his targeted child-care and after-school proposals, 55 percent of white working class women polled on Election Day said they trusted Bush to handle the economy; only 40 percent trusted Kerry.

Perhaps some of these women heard this part of Bush's stump speech: "The times in which we work and live are changing dramatically. The workers of our parents' generation typically had one job, one skill, one career, often with one company.... And most of these workers were men. Today... in one of the most dramatic shifts our society has seen, two-thirds of all moms also work outside the home. This changed world can be a time of great opportunity for all Americans to earn a better living, support your family, and have a rewarding career. And government must take your side."

Bush is right, but so far his policies have not matched his rhetoric. Despite the promises, government is too often not on the side of working parents. And so there is an opportunity for progressives in both parties to get behind a pro-family and pro-business initiative that would give working parents the simple right to ask for a more family-friendly schedule. It doesn't require employers to grant the request, but it does tell parents that it is okay to stand up for their own interests. For many workers who have been conditioned to do as they are told on the job, that is a radical new shift.

A new flexibility presumption would give working parents many more ways to juggle their responsibilities and would hand them control over their lives. And it could be expanded to all caregivers--in addition to working parents, more than 22 million working Americans provide care to another adult. There is hardly a constituency that isn't affected by the struggle to balance work and family responsibilities. We haven't yet landed on the right solution, but if we enlist the help of employees themselves, we just might get there.

Karen Kornbluh is former director of the New America Foundation's Work and Family Program and now works for a Democratic senator. The views expressed here are purely her own.


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