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Morra Aarons-Mele's picture

For over two years, The Four Hour Work Week has been a national bestseller. Why? Because most of us resent feeling tethered to our jobs, and we know we could still do great work even if we had the ability to control our schedules and factor family needs into our day. But workers are completely on their own to figure it out. Out of 168 nations, 163 have some form of paid maternity leave, leaving the United States in the company of Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland. Nice. We are grown ups who have home and work demands; what's wrong here?

At the BlogHer Conference in NYC on August 7 at 1:30, MamaBee and I will be hosting a session to plot how women in social media can aid the grassroots effort to push for broader adoption of family friendly workplace practices. Like most social change efforts, legislative, corporate interests and grassroots pressure must combine to instill family friendly -- I say human friendly -- practices. It is crucial that both legislators and corporate leaders know how much we the people want and need flexible workplace practices, so we'll talk about how to support such efforts using our blogs and online influence. This is a non-partisan issue. If you're going to BlogHer, I hope you can join us, and below I'll lay out the basics of the work life movement. If you are not attending the Conference, follow the hashtag #goodwork for updates and to get involved.

Why it is so urgent
For dual-earner couples with children, combined work hours are now 91 hours per week, up from 81 hours per week in 1977. For the first time, the 2007 census recorded more American households headed by singles rather than married people. According to the Labor Project for Working Families, 40% of people caring for elders also have childcare responsibilities.
Only 20% of the actual workforce has the luxury of a stay at home parent. National data shows that over 80% of workers polled would prefer more flexible work options and would use them if there were no negative consequences at work. And there's the rub: if there were no negative consequences.

The good news is that many employers are more flexible about implementing flexibility, but the majority of smaller firms, where most Americans now work, don't offer such benefits to all employees. Terms are negotiated on a case-by-case basis. Without public policy mandates, many companies are confused about how to implement change. In the 2008 National Study of Employers, those most likely to have implemented flexibility include employers with a large percentage of female senior management, companies in the nonprofit, finance, real estate and insurance industries, and those companies without union representation.

What companies are doing
Most large American companies have initiatives to lure and retain great employees by providing "work-life" benefits. These are often couched in "Women's Initiatives" but men certainly benefit. The big accounting firms have traditionally led the way with flex, joined by Pharma companies and other professional service firms. I have a friend who is a senior manager at Deloitte who works entirely at home. Her job is global, and no one cares where she is. It's much easier for white collar professionals to negotiate flexible work arrangements than it is for hourly workers and those who work for small businesses. Still, companies are ad hoc about programs. This is why standards are so key.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, today's top five "family-friendly" benefits are dependent-care flexible spending accounts, flextime, family leave, telecommuting on a part-time basis and compressed workweeks. Today's work-life initiatives also include elder-care assistance, child-care services, management training, adoption assistance, community outreach and many other forms of workplace flexibility and redesign.

Many people consider work more flexible when it is possible to take time off during the day for personal matters. But this is not the same as exercising family friendly policies. Fearing repercussions, most Americans choose not to exercise the full extent of such benefits, and men use them far less than women (think of the difference between maternity and paternity leave norms). But a growing portion of the American workforce is "dual-centric," in the words of MSU's Ellen Kossek: seeing work and home as complementary activities, and feeling they can be successful in both.

Although it is often aligned with women's needs, flexibility is not just for women.
For a great summary of companies who get it, visit You should also check out the Working Mother Best Companies Guide, the Sloan Work Family Research Network at Boston College, and Katharine Lewis' guide for working mothers.

Federal legislation on the horizon (there is more, but to be brief...)
While more than 100 million leaves have been taken under the FMLA since 1993, many workers can't take full advantage of its provisions because they cannot afford to take unpaid leave. Being paid for your maternity leave, however, is discretionary and based on your employer and state of residence. Only 8% of American workers have paid family leave.

Discrimination based on pregnancy is a form of sex discrimination.

But maternity leave is usually created from a variety of benefits that include sick leave, vacation, holiday time, personal days, short-term disability (aka SDI, or STD) and unpaid family leave time. Most companies allow you to use your sick, vacation and holiday time towards your maternity leave. Some companies require that you use these benefits first before using any disability or unpaid time.
FMLA does not require employers to provide paid leave, but it does guarantee job protection while out on maternity leave. The FMLA was updated in January 2009 and the latest provisions are here. As strange as it seems, many employers consider maternity leave as a disability. Many paid leave terms are funded by short-term disability insurance (SDI).

Flexible Work Arrangements
"Family Responsibilities Discrimination" is currently illegal under many laws, but only two states prohibit employers discriminating against those with caregiver responsibilities. The Center for Work life Law at UC Hastings has an excellent account of public policy that prevents this discrimination. However, in practice, we all know the discrimination is hardly black and white but sort of nefarious and creeping.
One model that is gaining steam is called a "right to request" law. As Phoebe Taubman puts it: "Originating in the UK, this law would give employees the right to request a flexible work arrangement. Their employer would have to consider the request and give them a written response. They are free to deny it, but they have to explain why formally. The idea would be, especially in an economy like this one, people who may need a flexible work arrangement may be afraid to ask for it because of all the stigma around flexibility, and they don't want to be seen as a disposable person or not committed to their work. It's a nice idea for any time, but particularly in a recession because there's not a huge cost element. But we've sort of dabbled in that in a few places but it hasn't taken off yet. And there's a federal bill, a Carolyn Maloney bill, modeled on the UK version. [Working Families Flexibility Act, HR 1274]"

Working for the Federal Government is one of the best ways to ensure flexible work. Recently, the Office of Personnel Management, led by John Berry, announced several innovative flex pilots. After a massive snowstorm shut down DC, leadership realized in this day and age it is simply stupid to miss a week of work because people can't come to the office. And they took action.
Recently the Senate and House passed legislation called the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act, "designed to expand telecommuting opportunities governmentwide by making employees presumptively eligible and requiring agencies to take a number of actions to expand their telework programs." The final bill is nearing readiness for the President's desk, which is great news. I actually believe the Federal Government, very deliberately, wants to become a model employer. Obama has been open about this: the Feds may never pay Wall St. salaries he says, but to get the best and brightest they may be able to compete on quality of life. So if you're interested in what's new in work life policy, follow what Federal employees do.

Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL) proposed The Paid Vacation Act requiring at least one week of paid vacation for employees at companies with at least 100 employees. Full- and part-time (25 hours per week/1250 hours per year) workers will be eligible after one year of service. Right wing blogs promptly called him "French" even though study after study shows taking vacation increases worker productivity.

I'll close with this: what we really need is mandated paid sick leave, and paid family leave (See for great summaries WHY). Again: Out of 168 nations, 163 have some form of paid maternity leave, leaving the United States in the company of Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.

If paid leave on a federal level happens I'll eat my hat. But if it did, we'd be a better country for it.
What the White House is doing

On March 31, 2010 the White House held its first forum to discuss workplace flexibility. I sat there in awe as President Obama shouted, "workplace flexibility is not a woman's issue!" Dr. Christina Romer, head of the Council of Economic Advisers touted her excellent new report about the benefits of flex. Then, in July, the Administration followed up with Vice President Biden's Middle Class Task Force Event on Work and Family which was co-hosted by the White House Council on Women and Girls. This focused on two areas: equal pay for women and men; and implementing the workplace flexibility that we all need to meet the demands of our home life while also meeting the demands of our work life.

According to the Families and Work Institute blog, "Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, announced that the Department of Labor will be conducting a new Family and Medical Leave Act survey in 2011. They will also be sponsoring a supplement to the American Time Use Survey to include questions on parental leave, child care responsibilities, family leave insurance program usage, and other work and family issues. In addition to the surveying they will be doing, the Department of Labor's Women's Bureau- headed by Sara Manzano-Diaz will be holding forums across the country called the "National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility" where business and community leaders will come together and share ideas to make workplace flexibility a reality, and eventually, the standard in business practices."

So, the Administration supports flexibility in a real way. However, they are very much in the "softening" stage: feeling out business and Congress in attempts to make the issue more pressing. My bet: November elections will push this issue even further to the back burner. Depending on how things turn out, the issue may surface as a priority in 2014.

But they'll never go to bat for it like they would for say, health care. That's why grassroots pressure is so crucial here. On that note, if you blog about anything related to family friend work, flexible work, or anything related to this issue, please use the tag #goodwork.

See you Saturday!

More great bloggers on this issue:
Work Life Nation
Leanne Chase
Chrysula Winegar
Cali Yost

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