Flextime movement grows, helping working families



Last modified: Wednesday, November 19, 2014

For 16 years, Dena Adams investigated child abuse cases for Covenant House, a New York City nonprofit. But when the agency put her on the overnight shift in 2011, the single mother had difficulty finding care for her 11-year-old daughter.

Adams didn’t feel comfortable leaving the girl alone at night in her Brooklyn neighborhood, which could be dangerous, so she asked Covenant House for an evening shift instead. The agency refused - and then fired her. (Covenant House declined to comment on Adams’ specific case, but said it has “a strong commitment to working with each of our employees to provide the flexibility that is so vital in today’s workplace” and that it must balance employees’ needs “with the critical needs of a 24-hour crisis shelter.”)

“I thought they would work with me and they worked against me,” Adams said. “I can work anywhere, any job. Just give me the flexibility to care for my daughter. That’s all I ask.”

Some cities and states are trying to give that flexibility to their own employees. California, Iowa, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island and South Carolina direct state agencies to allow “flextime” schedules for their workers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Some states and cities are going further, by applying the same rules to the private sector. At the beginning of this year, Vermont and San Francisco began mandating that private employers consider employees’ requests for flextime without retaliation. New York City may soon follow.

In June, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer published a report recommending that the City Council pass “Right to Request” legislation creating a formal mechanism for employees to ask for flexibility without fear of reprisal. The legislation is expected to be introduced over the next few weeks.

“It’s time for the public and private sectors to work together to reshape the workplace,” Stringer said in the report. “‘Right to Request’ legislation would create a process to discuss flexible arrangements. Whether it’s in finance or law, retail or health care, all industries can benefit from flexible work arrangements. New York City should be a trailblazer in creating models for the 21stt century workplace.”

There’s also interest on the federal level. In July, Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced the Schedules That Work Act, which would give hourly workers more control over their schedules. In June, President Barack Obama directed federal agencies to give employees more leeway in their work schedules. And last year, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., introduced the Flexibility for Working Families Act, which would authorize employees to ask for permanent or temporary changes in their work schedules.

“I hope as these bills are introduced around the country, the onus will be on the employer to make this work, and (that they will) address the critical issue of scheduling and adequate hours,” said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values at Work, a national network of 21 state and local coalitions advocating for family-friendly workplace policies.

“When people doing the work have some say in their work, they tend to do a better job. Let’s make it about policy, not about favoritism or how clever you are at talking to your boss. We need to have protections people need so they can be successful in their jobs and in their lives.”

Eighty-two percent of American children are growing up in households where both parents work, but a 2012 study by the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management found that employees who asked for flexible working arrangements to care for a child or elderly relative often faced negative consequences. According to the National Women’s Law Center, less than half of employees across the country have any say in their work schedules, while more than one-third of parents believe request for flexible work schedules cost them promotions.

In Vermont, private-sector employees can ask for flexible work schedules for any reason. In San Francisco, they can request flexibility to care for a child, a parent 65 or older or any family member with a chronic health condition. Employers are required to seriously consider the worker’s request and provide concrete explanations if the company can’t accommodate the flextime request.

But flextime can be a challenge for managers, particularly when employees have to work in teams, said Teresa Amabile, professor and a director of research at Harvard Business School. This is particularly true if the schedule change is unexpected, she said. “That can just wreak havoc on the rest of the team; how they’re going to get information from them or how they’re going to do handoffs.”

Coordinating workflow and communications is the biggest challenge facing managers and companies, Amabile said. But she said these hurdles can be managed using technology, and that her research has shown that flextime can work well for both companies and employees.

“It’s a wonderful tool from the company’s perspective of retaining talented employees,” said Amabile, the co-author of “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work.” “From the employee’s side, people are more engaged with their work and perform more productively and more creatively when they feel they have more autonomy in their work.”

The “Right to Request” concept started in the United Kingdom, where parents or registered caregivers of children younger than 16 can request flexible work hours without fear of being penalized. The U.K. this year strengthened the “flexible working” law. Now all employees, regardless of family status, are allowed to request different start and stop times, or to work from home. Employers must deal with the requests in a “reasonable manner.” Other European countries have done the same, and New Zealand passed similar legislation in 2007.

In the U.S., the debate over flexible work hours heated up a couple of years ago when Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, urged women to “Lean In” and take charge of their careers, while Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer rescinded the company’s previous flextime and telecommuting policies in favor of “face time” in the office.

Some labor researchers worry that the talk about flexible work arrangements will focus exclusively on middle-class, white-collar workers while ignoring the needs of shift workers who are often at the mercy of managers who can change their schedules on a whim. Fewer than three out of 10 employees say they have the ability to change their daily starting times, and only one in 10 employees participate in flextime schedules, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

In some instances, a flexible work schedule can actually harm employees, said Bob Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois. “When you ask workers to define a flexible work schedule, they come up with something that’s different from what their employer comes up with. How do you reconcile that? In a nonunion place, the employer dictates what happens.”

After nearly 18 months of unemployment, Dena Adams found work with an agency that finds housing for homeless women.

“It’s excellent, Adams, 46, said. “The director there is all for family, ‘whatever you have to do for family, we can rearrange your schedule.’ She gets it. She says, ‘I know once your kids are fine, you’re better.’

“This is what employers need to know,” Adams says. We will bend over backwards for our employers - if they bend over backwards for us.”




 


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