State, Local Policies Make Important Steps Forward for Workplace Flexibility

By Liz Ben-Ishai

As working caregivers across the country increasingly find themselves at wits end trying to meet work deadlines, arrange child care, get dinner on the table, and take elderly relatives to medical appointments, important developments in the movement to make workplaces more family-friendly are finally gaining political traction.

Last month, the state of Vermont passed the country’s first law that includes a provision giving workers the “right to request” a flexible work schedule.  And on the heels of Vermont’s exciting victory, earlier this month, San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu introduced a proposed ballot measure for rules that would give workers who are caregivers a “right to request” flex work. Such laws allow employees to file requests with their employers to telecommute, job share, work part time, or adjust their schedules – all options that can greatly reduce the burden parents and other caregivers face when trying to meet the demands of their jobs and care for their families.

The Vermont law, and San Francisco’s, if it makes it on the ballot and voters embrace it,  follows in the footsteps of the United KingdomNew Zealand, and Australia, which have already instituted right to request policies. (Other developed nations have more expansive provisions that give workers the right to schedule changes, not just the right to ask for them.) Under the U.K. and New Zealand laws, employers can refuse the request if approving it would lead to undue hardship for the business. Vermont’s law prohibits employers from retaliating against employees that make the request; San Francisco’s motion for a ballot measure uses similar language.

“Right to request” rules address concerns that are pressing for many working families. Indeed, in one survey, working parents of all political stripes listed “more flexible hours/schedules” as the most important change they’d like to see in order to succeed in meeting both their work and family responsibilities. Another poll found that more than half of parents have difficulty juggling work and family obligations. Without flexibility, many working parents must either risk economic insecurity by compromising their work situation, or are forced to make choices that are not in the best interests of their families. A recent study found that many low-income parents are unable to make childcare choices based on their children’s needs and the full range of options. Instead, the constraints of their work schedules severely limited their childcare options.

Employers are increasingly aware of the need to institute workplace flexibility policies. They also recognize that it’s not only employees who benefit from workplace flexibility – businesses also come out on top when they create the flexible conditions that workers need to perform effectively. In a 2011 survey, the Families and Work Institute asked employers whether they viewed flexibility as “a favor for individuals or a business strategy.” Across industries, the overwhelming majority of employers chose the latter response. These employers know that workplace flexibility can improve employee morale and engagement, bolster retention rates, increase loyalty to the business, and help with recruitment. At the same time, many managers find that worker productivity increases with flexible scheduling, while absenteeism decreases.

Lower-wage workers are among those most in need of flexibility in order to care for their families and do their jobs well. A staggering number of working parents – 41 percent – with household incomes below twice the federal poverty level receive no paid leave of any kind (no sick leave, vacation, personal days, or other forms of compensated leave). Lower-wage workers are more likely to be single parents, making the juggling act that much more difficult. And they are more likely to grapple with child development challenges and elder care responsibilities, both of which point to an increased need for flexibility. Yet, despite these challenges, it is lower-wage workers who are least likely to have access to flexible work arrangements.

Research shows that employers benefit when they offer lower-wage workers flexibility.  Like their higher-wage counterparts, lower-wage workers are more likely to remain with their employers when given flexibility. Providing flexibility to lower-wage workers may require more creativity because of the jobs they are more likely to hold. And for too many lower-wage workers the primary problem is not enough hours of work or not enough notice of a mandated schedule changes. Right to request provisions may prove to be an important opportunity for creative ideas about how to tackle these varied problems.

Right to request policies create a formal avenue for workers to engage their employers in a discussion about workplace flexibility, with specific guidelines for procedures to address such requests. These policies would not, however, mandate a right to workplace flexibility, in and of itself – a feature of these policies that might make them appealing to some observers. The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), an HR lobby group, expressed support for workplace flexibility in its recent report. SHRM notes that workplace flexibility initiatives are a low-cost means of increasing employee job satisfaction, reducing turnover, and lowering insurance costs. However, the group eschews “one-size-fits-all mandates” and instead supports an approach that attends to diversity in employee and employer needs. Right to request policies do just this.

Vermont and now San Francisco are leading the way in the U.S. in establishing pathways to flexible work arrangements. Along with recent developments and victories in campaigns for other measures to improve job quality, such as earned sick days and paid family leave, these “right to request” laws should bring needed attention to the realities that working families face.