Signs of Culture Change: San Francisco Passes Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance

By Liz Ben-Ishai

Workers who are caregivers to children or other dependents often face considerable hardships as they try to meet their caregiving obligations while performing their jobs. For many, even a small amount of flexibility in their schedules can ease this burden. For example, being allowed to work from 8-4 instead of 9-5 might make it possible for a worker to avoid the cost of an after-school babysitter for his children. The ability to work from home occasionally might enable a worker to take her elderly father to a medical appointment. For low-wage workers, increased predictability may be more important than flexibility: having a consistent schedule makes finding quality childcare possible for some workers. When schedules are unpredictable, workers struggle not only to find childcare, but also to pay the bills (when their hours vary from week to week, workers’ paychecks also fluctuate unexpectedly). 

Workers in San Francisco will soon have a potential avenue to address time-at-work issues. This week, 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. San Francisco’s new law follows closely on the heels of a similar provision passed as a part of an equal pay bill in the state of Vermont earlier this year. 

While “right to request” laws related to work schedules are new to the United States, workers in the U.K, Australia, and New Zealand have been benefitting from them for some time. Moreover, 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. The Vermont and San Francisco laws create a formal avenue for workers to inquire about increased flexibility (or predictability, in the case of San Francisco). They 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 determine that 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 the ordinance, San Francisco has plans to explore other solutions to the problems workers –particularly lower-wage workers – experience regarding 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. 

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. 

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. These new laws point in a hopeful direction, particularly for lower-wage workers, who typically have the least access to paid time off and flexibility.