The Government’s Role in Work-Family Balance

Work-family policy is not a new concept in the U.S., but it has hardly kept up with the changing needs of the worker and the family as noted in the Future of Children’s recent volume, Work and Family. The safeguards that are currently in place for the American worker were created at a time when mothers were typically at home to care for children, aging or ill family members, and do the household chores. Today, the vast majority of families do not have a stay at home parent but still have child care, and increasingly, elder care responsibilities.

In 1935, the government addressed the need for income support when workers could not be at work with the Social Security Act, which established Old Age and Survivors Insurance, unemployment insurance, and income assistance to mothers and children. This law was built on the dynamic that men were the bread winners and women, the caregivers. But that leaves many gaps for today’s families where both women and men are breadwinners and caregivers alike. Policy makers have since tried to fill many of these gaps, but inequalities that affect caregivers remain, perhaps most notably the failure of the law to cover caregiving leave. Today there are only two states, California and New Jersey, that provide state-level social insurance to workers for family leave.

In 1938 Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). FLSA regulated the nation’s minimum wage and hours worked, particularly hours worked by women and children. This act was not designed to address work-family conflict but in limiting the hours worked, it did reserve time for workers to care for families. However, the act was based on the assumption that workers were employed full time – in that era, commonly ten to twelve hours each day – and did not deal with, or encourage, workplace flexibility.

Times have changed greatly since these safeguards from the 1930’s were enacted, and policies need to be updated to reflect the modern workforce. Work-family policies, that fit our time, involve initiatives that give caregivers flex and leave options that allow them the flexibility to meet their family needs without compromising their productivity. For professional workers and those subject to mandatory overtime, the problem is most often too much work; for low-wage workers it is more often too few hours and unpredictable schedules.

A growing body of empirical research suggests that workplace flexibility policies may enhance productivity by improving retention and reducing turnover. In 2010, the Council of Economic Advisers reviewed evidence on the economic value of adopting workplace flexibility and concluded that the “costs to firms of adopting these kinds of management practices can also be outweighed by reduced absenteeism, lower turnover, healthier workers, and increased productivity.” Additional research is needed to further substantiate these findings, but these initial claims are promising.

Given this, how do we update our nation’s work-family policies to reflect the flexibility needs of our changing workforce?

Although there are no easy solutions to the work-family challenge, the evidence presented in our Work and Family volume provides useful insights into the types of work-family conflicts American employees are experiencing, as well as the types of employer, governmental, and community policies that might most effectively address them. For example, the costs of sick day benefits are minimal and can be borne by individual employers, who also stand to reap gains from not having workers with contagious diseases show up at work, make their colleagues ill, and reduce overall firm productivity. Paid sick days are now guaranteed by law in several U.S. localities including San Francisco, the District of Columbia, and Milwaukee, and are gaining momentum, even despite the current economic recession. In the past few months, paid sick days were enacted into law in the state of Connecticut, in the city of Seattle, and passed in the city of Philadelphia (although not yet signed by the mayor).

For more detailed information about local and state initiatives that have updated policies to ease work-family tensions and employers that have voluntarily implemented workplace flexibility initiatives, go to our Work and Family volume and policy brief.

This blog draws from Heather Boushey’s article in the Future of Children journal, “The Role of the Government in Work-Family Conflict.”