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Building on the momentum of last year's White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility, the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor held a National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility in Pasadena, CA on Thursday, February 17 focusing on the unique challenges and solutions of using flexibility with an hourly workforce.

This National Dialogue in Pasadena was followed by a Regional Dialogue in Seattle, WA the next day, which focused on workplace flexibility in the health care industry. Both highlighted best practices among local employers that have demonstrated their use of flexibility as a strategic recruitment, retention and management tool for work-life and business success.

Over 450 participants representing the business, research, advocacy, government and labor communities attended the Pasadena Dialogue, where Joan C. Williams of the Center for WorkLife Law described the challenges facing today's businesses and working families:

"Today's workplaces are designed for 1960s' families. 70 percent of American families with children have all adults working... Americans are living longer today and hospitals release patients quicker and sicker, relying on relatives to nurse ill family members back to health... We need to modernize the workplace to meet the challenges of the 21st century workforce."

Williams went on to outline the unique situation and challenges facing the one-third of Americans who hold low-wage hourly jobs, as detailed in her new report, "Improving Work-Life Fit in Hourly Jobs: An Underutilized Cost-Cutting Strategy in a Globalized World."

The thrust of Williams' report emphasizes that both the schedule instability (last-minute scheduling changes at work) and excessive schedule rigidity (inability to change break times or shift schedules) common with low-wage hourly jobs is simply incompatible with the lives of low-income families and the realities they face. Many low-income families have to raise children, care for an ill family member, and often have to cope with frequent and serious health problems in the family. Scheduling instability and rigidity, then, create child care and elder care conflicts which often result in high rates of absenteeism-- 500 percent for some businesses-- and in a pattern of "serial quitting" among low-wage hourly workers.

As Secretary Hilda Solis said during the opening remarks:

It is very hard for someone who works in an hourly low-wage job to take time off-- there is a fear on the part of the employee for retaliation [for caring for a family member]....As we work to out-educate and out-innovate the rest of the world, we need employers and employees to work together to create a better balance in work-life issues."

Williams' report frames "work-life fit" and the use of workplace flexibility as a strategy for businesses to adopt more effective schedule techniques to better retain their workers, lower their turnover rates, lower labor costs and therefore be more competitive in the global economy. As Williams said:

"Flexibility is about competitiveness, it's about women's economic empowerment and it's about the global war for talent...If we apply human intelligence to scheduling, and to breaking old habits, we can use flexibility to harness the talent in our labor market and to increase economic self-sufficiency for the low-wage segment of the workforce."

The employers on the panel at the Pasadena Dialogue gave clear examples of how flexibility helped improve their competitive edge. Rosalind Hudnell, Chief Diversity Officer and Global Director of Education and External Relations at Intel said that with 11,000 hourly workers in the U.S., the company's "manufacturing technicians are the heart and soul of our businesses." Intel offers flexible scheduling, a parenting re-integration program and reimbursements for back-up child care as ways to promote better work-life balance and lower turnover.

And Jennifer Piallat, Owner of Zazie Restaurant, showed how effective scheduling can lead to enhanced business performance in the small business and restaurant industry. Piallat offers her restaurant staff 401 (k) retirement accounts, a health plan and fixed, long-term schedules. Workers who need an extra day off or need to swap shifts arrange for a co-worker to cover their shift. Piallat says that in an industry with high turnover, she hasn't had to hire new staff in five years. Why does she offer her hourly workers these benefits? She said:

"Before I owned Zazie, I worked at a restaurant for 20 years, and I was always one month away from being homeless."

So although empathy plays a role in how Piallat manages her hourly workers, she also sees the direct payoff. Zazie has the highest labor costs compared to other local restaurants, but it also has the highest profitability and the highest retention of workers.

In Seattle the next day, Ellen Galinsky presented data from the Family and Work Institute's 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce, which showed that 75 percent of employers in the health care industry use flexibility as a strategy to meet organizational goals, compared to 65 percent of employers in other industries. In health services--an industry that is 75 percent female-- therefore, flexibility is commonly seen as a business strategy, and not an "accommodation" for employees.

Maureen O'Keefe, Vice President of Human Resources and Strategic Planning for St. Luke's Regional Medical Center in Boise, ID, described the flexible work options and supports the Center offers its workers, including: telework, shift work, job-sharing, on-site daycare and walk-in clinics for ill staff members. St. Luke's also offers flexible schedules for students who are continuing their education. O'Keefe said:

We approach flexibility as a business need-- to change the delivery model of health care.

Kimberly Giglio, Director of Talent Acquisition at Multi-Care Hospitals in Tacoma, WA, also described how her clinics use flexibility to offer workers a way to balance the dual demands of work and life, and to specifically complete on-site degrees and apprenticeship programs.

The common thread running through the discussions at the Pasadena and Seattle Flexibility Dialogues was that workplace flexibility is a business imperative that applies to many industries, to large businesses and small, and can be used to reduce labor costs with a low-wage, hourly workforce to give businesses a competitive advantage in the global economy.

Corporate Voices has long believed in the business imperative for flexibility, and has has published research and useful implementation toolkits to help expand the use of flexibility within the wider business community. Corporate Voices also launched its national workplace flexibility campaign after the White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility to create a broader awareness of the positive business and employee benefits of flexibility, and is now showcasing best-practice employers as "Business Champions" in this national campaign.

As Secretary Solis said in Pasadena-- as we work to out-educate and out-innovate the rest of the world, let's also recognize how effective uses of flexibility can help modernize our workplaces to better meet the needs of 21st century families and businesses, so we can be prepared to "win the future."

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