The White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility has generated an energetic buzz in work family advocacy circles across the nation. As a longtime advocate for family friendly workplaces, I am thrilled by First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama’s keen interest and commitment to build and promote flexible workplaces. I also commend the many businesses that are genuinely trying to create workplaces that reflect the current needs of America’s working families. But I am cautiously optimistic. For, I am also aware of the many “fake flex” policies that force workers to “flex” their lives to fit the job and not vice versa.
Workplace flexibility remains an elusive phenomenon in most American workplaces — the majority of such benefits are available only to the highly qualified and skilled professional workforce. And when flexible work arrangements are offered to service sector workers, they do little to address the workers’ needs but plenty for the company’s bottom-line. Creating a more “flexible” and cheaper workforce is a popular profit-making strategy of many large retail employers including big box chains like Walmart. In the name of flexibility, employers are capping wages, forcing full-time workers into part-time positions without benefits, and forcing them to work irregular and erratic work schedules, including working more nights and weekends. The demand that workers be available round the clock puts the company’s needs first and the needs of working families last. Such management-driven “fake flex” policies that penalize workers and give them little or no control give workplace flexibility a bad name.
As I see it, real workplace flexibility equals workers’ control over their job plus security. It is never forced on workers. It expands their choices by giving them the power to shape their work days, hours and schedules to achieve work family balance. A key task for the Obama Administration is to put existing flexible workplace policies through a sieve and champion only those policies that truly give workers control over their work time without risking their wages, benefits or job security.
We have made some advances in creating family friendly workplaces — but these have been worker by worker and workplace by workplace. For the most part, labor unions have been at the forefront of re-envisioning the workplace — the 8-hour work day, the weekend, safety standards, and important family friendly policies such as paid sick days, paid family leave and family health insurance (see Family-Friendly Workplaces: Do Unions Make a Difference?). In many industries, unions have regulated “flexibility” that is controlled by the employer and a burden on employees (see Real Flextime – Union Made). Any policy discussion on advancing workplace flexibility stands to gain from a strong union presence at the table.
Nearly 75 percent of all working adults in the United States have little or no control over their work schedules — lower paid workers (especially lower income women) have the least control. Arriving or leaving even a few minutes late can cost them their jobs. We continue to lag behind other developed nations in guaranteeing our workers important labor standards such as paid sick days and paid family leave. In his closing remarks at the Forum, President Obama said, “Caring for loved ones and raising the next generation is the single most important job we have.” It is indeed time we made this easier for our working families.
A Peaceful Revolution is a blog about innovative ideas to strengthen America’s families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with MomsRising.org, read a new post here each week.
*This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post on April 5, 2010. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Netsy Firestein is founder and Executive Director of the Labor Project for Working Families, a national non-profit organization that educates and empowers unions to organize, bargain and advocate for family friendly workplaces. Ms. Firestein is recognized as a national expert on labor and work family issues. For over 25 years, Ms. Firestein has worked with the labor movement to ensure that work family issues are an integral part of labor’s organizing, bargaining and advocacy efforts. Ms. Firestein has also helped forge important partnerships between labor and community groups to advocate for statewide and national work family policies.