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The American Workplace Is Stuck in the '50s

Wages are in the gutter. Work-life balance is out of whack. When will workplace policy catch up with the changing landscape of America's workforce?
 
 
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It's not your grandfather's labor market.

What changed? A generation ago, a typical American household consisted of a family with two parents: a working father, who often earned enough to support the entire family, and a stay-at-home mother. Today, however, most households with children need the incomes from two jobs to make ends meet. One of the most significant trends over the past 50 years has been the movement of women, especially mothers, into the paid labor force. Now that most women have entered the workforce, a two-parent, middle-income family has a husband working full-time and a wife working approximately three-quarters of full-time.

Complicating efforts to manage work-life responsibilities, employer work schedules can be inflexible and many working women must work irregular hours that include nights, evenings and weekends. One-third of working women work shifts that differ from those worked by a spouse or partner. Between 1979 and 2004, the combined annual hours of work among families with children rose by 18 percent, the equivalent of every family putting in an additional 13.5 weeks of full-time work per year.

Today, in 70 percent of households, all adults work, resulting in an increasing number without a stay-at-home parent or primary caretaker. While family dynamics and living arrangements have changed, the typical requirements of work have not, creating a mismatch between workplace expectations and workforce needs. Nearly half of all employees report conflicts between jobs and other responsibilities, more so than a generation ago, and many workers do not have access to opportunities to balance work-life responsibilities, such as paid sick days, family and medical leave, or flexibility in the workplace.

Today, workers need to be able to make use of a variety of work-life policies. Our national work-life policies must also address the needs of people living alone, a living arrangement that has grown dramatically since the 1950s, when only 9 percent of households consisted of people living alone. By 1970, people living alone represented 17 percent of households. In the 1990s, the number had grown to 21 percent, more than all other types of living arrangements. By 2005, 26 percent of households consisted of people living alone, and the percentage exceeded that of households made up of married parents and their own children. People living alone also need time off to deal with responsibilities of extended family and other obligations. Unlike the occupants of households with more than one adult, people living alone must deal with these obligations on their own.

A new labor standard for paid sick days

Despite these shifts in our society and labor force, only about 50 percent of workers are offered paid sick days. A mere 39 percent of low-wage jobs offer any paid sick days for personal illness, compared to 79 percent of jobs held by higher-wage employees. While many higher-income workers also benefit from the Family and Medical Leave Act adopted during the Clinton-Gore administration, workers who cannot afford to go without the income from work are less likely to use the federally guaranteed unpaid leave. Nearly three-quarters of all workers who benefit from family and medical leave policies earn $30,000 or more annually. Among workers who needed leave but did not take it, not being able to afford unpaid leave was the most commonly reported reason.

Even occasional job-protected unpaid sick days or leave to handle community or household responsibilities are not an option for many low-wage workers. Workers fear job loss or disciplinary action (such as fewer or less desirable shift assignments) for taking time off. Only about one-third of all jobs provide employees complete or much control in scheduling work hours. About 38 percent of jobs held by low-wage and low-income employees are low-flexibility jobs, compared to 19 percent of other jobs.

Our public and private policy must acknowledge this reality and provide ways to turn low-wage jobs from bad jobs into better jobs. Given these gaps, a new labor standard -- like the national minimum wage created by federal law -- establishing a universal right to take time off for short-term illness would strengthen our labor market and turn millions of bad jobs into better ones.

A comprehensive set of work-life policies would be a significant step in enhancing our labor market standards. Strengthening the labor market in this way requires that decision-makers acknowledge these changes in our labor market and living arrangements, including the growth of single, single-parent, and two-working-parent households.

No single policy will address all situations, so policymakers and employers must consider a full menu of options that meet varying needs.

Workplace flexibility an emerging idea

Emerging work-life policies redefine success in the workplace to include a worker's ability to meet work and other obligations. For example, leaders in the United Kingdom established the right of workers to request flexible working arrangements in the Employment Act of 2002. This act makes it possible for workers who are caring for children under the age of 6 to request flexible work arrangements from their employers, but it does not obligate an employer to grant a work request. U.K. leaders created this right to accommodate the needs of caretakers and their employers and to encourage dialogue about and consideration of flexible work solutions that work for both parties. In 2006, after broad agreement about the success of the act, leaders expanded it to allow "carers" of adults to request flexibility.

Surveys of employers and employees about the impact of the U.K. law show widespread satisfaction. Both employers and employees report that the vast majority of requests are granted. Moreover, the government officials' analysis of the survey results finds that employers understand the benefits of work-life policies for the workplace and employees. In the United States, policymakers and employers are exploring replication of the U.K. law with legislation and practice, incorporating better use of technology, cross-training, and employee engagement practices to ensure that workers have appropriate levels of workplace flexibility.

Employers benefit from adopting new policies

While many U.S. employers do voluntarily provide some flexibility for workers when they have an emergency, too many workers do not have the flexibility and predictability of scheduling they need to accommodate other life activities. Employers may feel that it is difficult to meet unanticipated need for time off, and small businesses in particular may be reluctant to deal with additional staff planning for time off. Yet, many employers have used public and private policy to balance these competing interests.

Despite an initial investment, costs for implementation of workplace flexibility are relatively small compared with the workforce, economic and community benefits that result. Employer benefits include improved employee retention, positive human capital outcomes and a more productive workforce, all of which can lead to stronger financial performance, especially for retail companies whose employees often have a direct relationship with customers.

Employers also see improved productivity and "positive business results" after implementing work-life policies. For example, researchers reporting on a 2002 Watson Wyatt study found that "companies that provide more flexible work arrangements" could see as much as a 3.5 percent rise in shareholder value.

In addition, work-life policies can improve mental health and reduce stress, and thus reduce employee health care costs. Stress at work can increase employees' unscheduled absences, and health care expenditures are nearly 50 percent greater for U.S. workers who report high levels of stress.

Public dialogue critical for policy change

Recent evidence of public concern about both public capacity to manage work-life policy and interference in employment policy suggests that a new dialogue about these policies will be required for successful implementation. Funders and other stakeholders should support research designed to develop a dialogue that builds public will.

No single policy can solve the current mismatch between labor market standards and changes in workforce and workplace practice. Supporters of policy solutions will need to recognize employer and public concerns and develop a public dialogue to meet the needs of today's workforce and labor market, and to produce positive social and economic results for all of us.

Sarah Sattelmeyer is senior research associate and Margy Waller is executive director at The Mobility Agenda. They are co-authors, along with Heather Boushey and Layla Moughari, of a new report: Work-Life Policies for the Twenty-First Century Economy.