San Francisco’s New Workplace Law Signals a Shift

Is the United States beginning to catch up to the rest of the world in accommodating the needs of workers who are parents or caregivers? Several new laws suggest that while the gap remains vast, there are some small but important and encouraging signs.

Beginning Jan. 1, workers in San Francisco will have a potential avenue to improve their access to flexible work arrangements. Earlier this month, the city’s board of supervisors unanimously passed the Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance, which will give workers who have personal caregiving obligations the right to request changes to their working conditions in order to meet these obligations.

While flexible work arrangements may be more familiar to the public, increased predictability may actually be the more important accommodation for low-wage workers. Without consistent schedules, workers might struggle to find child care or arrange transportation and could have difficulty making ends meet as their pay fluctuates from week to week. That’s why it’s encouraging that San Francisco’s law allows workers to request predictable scheduling, too.

San Francisco’s new law follows closely on the heels of a similar provision passed in Vermont as part of an equal pay bill earlier this year. While “right to request” laws related to work schedules are new to the United States, workers in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand have been benefitting from them for some time. Some nations have rules that go further than a “right to request,” instead providing a substantive right to flexible or alternative working conditions for parents and other caregivers.

A Formal Avenue

The Vermont and San Francisco laws create a formal avenue for workers to inquire about their work schedule needs. Like their international precursors, these laws do not mandate employers to agree to such flexibility. Rather, employers are required to consider the request in good faith, but can reject it if they think it will impose undue hardship on their businesses, a determination that is largely left to the discretion of the employer. In San Francisco, workers will have a right to be free from caregiver discrimination and in Vermont a non-retaliation clause is included in the law.

In addition to this new flexibility ordinance, San Francisco has plans to explore solutions to the problems workers (particularly lower-wage workers) experience in relation to scheduling predictability. The president of the board of supervisors has called for a Predictable Scheduling Task Force, bringing together various stakeholders to identify feasible policy options. For example, one option would be to require that employers provide a minimum standard of predictability, offering workers basic protections that reduce their need to request individual consideration.

Although San Francisco’s new ordinance and planned taskforce do not guarantee that more workers will enjoy workplaces that accommodate their caregiving obligations, they should help move the city and its employers in that direction. As San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who introduced the ordinance, explained, the legislation may “nudge real changes in workplace culture and eliminate stigma and bias around workers who request flexible schedules.” Chiu notes that the ordinance may facilitate culture change in a city that has not always been seen as hospitable to families.

National Models

As they implement these new laws, San Francisco and Vermont will be models for the rest of the country, where a growing number of working parents and other caregivers are struggling to meet the challenges of busy work and home lives.

Federal legislation containing similar provisions has been introduced in Congress on several occasions, but has seen little movement. However, if more municipalities and states pass these laws, a national solution might become more plausible.

San Francisco and Vermont’s “right to request” laws point in a hopeful direction. Lower-wage workers, who typically have the least access to flexibility and predictability, should benefit from an overall culture shift if laws are implemented effectively. At the same time, communities around the country are passing laws that provide earned sick days to virtually all workers; Rhode Island has just passed a paid family leave insurance bill; and a promising federal paid family and medical leave insurance bill will soon be introduced in Congress. These exciting developments are signs that workplaces and the laws that govern them may begin to catch up to the realities of workers’ lives.

Liz Ben-Ishai is a policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). Her work focuses on job quality issues for low-wage workers.