The White House on Wednesday took time out to promote the value of a flexible workplace that can accomodate two-paycheck families. With 15 million people officially unemployed, it made one nostalgic for a time before the recession, when people worried about the quality of their work lives rather than about just finding a job.
But allowing workers flexible schedules so they can balance their work and family lives isnt just a luxury that should be reserved for flush economic times. As Michelle Obama pointed out at the event that included business and family advocates, “So it’s something that many of the companies here today have discovered, very fortunately, that flexible policies actually make employees more, not less, productive.”
To underscore that point, the White House Council of Economic Advisers released a report that, the White House noted, “discusses the economic benefits of workplace flexibility—such as reduced absenteeism, lower turnover, improved health of workers, and increased productivity.”
Still, there might be a way to combine workplace flexibility with job creation — by adopting the proposal of Dean Baker and others to use unemployment insurance or other funds to help keep people on the job but working fewer hours.
Unfortunately, that sort of approach responding to the clamor for work didn’t get as much attention as innovative ways to promote flexible hours for employees so they can juggle personal and work obligations. As the Huffington Post’s Dan Froomkin reported:
Two out of three American families are so-called “juggler families,” in which parents are forever trying to balance the needs of their job with the needs of their children.
But many workplaces — and government policies — are still stuck in the distant past, operating as if most families still had a single breadwinner, and someone else to mind the kids when they’re out of school, or the grandparents when they need care.
Once you realize that, there are a bunch of employer practices and policy proposals that suddenly make a lot of sense: Encouraging telecommuting, giving people time off for family emergencies, enabling flexible schedules, allowing employees to swap shifts, and so on…
As part of his push, Obama cited a new White House report which concludes that flexible workplace rules could increase productivity.
But he also cast the need for more humane workplaces in moral terms. “[U]ltimately, it reflects our priorities as a society — our belief that no matter what each of us does for a living, caring for our loved ones and raising the next generation is the single most important job that we have. I think it’s time we started making that job a little easier for folks,” he said.
Even so, feminists and others who have promoted these concepts for years are now sharpening their arguments about the need for making such reforms in hard times. As Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute pointed out, in advance of the conference:
We had a preview of the Forum last week in DC at the Work Life Conference, co-convened by the Families and Work Institute and The Conference Board. Speaking at the conference, Martha Coven of the White House Domestic Policy Council said that some might argue that employees are lucky just to have jobs, that companies have to focus on meeting their payrolls, and that the government needs to get the economy back on track and stabilizing it. They ask, “why workplace flexibility; why now?”
That is a false choice, she countered. Workplace flexibility is something that we have to do not only when times are good, but when times are bad. Workplace flexibility will help our businesses AND our families thrive.
While promoting “flexible workplaces” won’t do anything to stop the distorted GOP onslaught targeting Obama over jobs, he stood up for the imporance of the issue—and made clear its broader benefits.
“Workplace flexibility isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s an issue that affects the well-being of our families and the success of our businesses,” said Obama. “It affects the strength of our economy – whether we’ll create the workplaces and jobs of the future that we need to compete in today’s global economy.”
As a White House press released noted, Obama has taken the issue seriously enough to place it alongside other intiatives that aim to level the playing field for women — and strengthen out economy by promoting full and fair participation in the workplace:
“Employers, including the federal government, will have to implement flexible work policies if they want to attract the best and the brightest,” said, Senior Adviser to the President and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls. ” The President is committed to making sure that the federal government can compete for talent because he knows that good people produce better work, which in turn, leads to better service for the American people.”
*This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on April 1, 2010. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author Art Levine is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, and a former Fellow with the Progressive Policy Insititute. He has also written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate, Salon and numerous other publications. He is the author of 2005’s PPI report, Parity-Plus: A Third Way Approach to Fix America’s Mental Health System, and is currently researching a book on mental health issues. Levine also posts commentary at Art Levine Confidential.