Workplace Flexibility: The Next Anti-Poverty Strategy

In conjunction with National Work and Family month, on Wednesday, October 5, Princeton-Brookings released a new volume of the Future of Children entitled Work and Family.

“The dilemma that we face is that parents act as the hub of service delivery for their children and elderly relatives. They provide direct care themselves, and they also coordinate other care that their family members receive… But most parents and most elder caregivers are also employed, and that leads to work-family conflict,” opened issue editor Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University at the Brookings Institution event.

Three demographic changes have increased work-family conflicts for both mothers and fathers: mothers’ continued entry into the workforce, high divorce rates, and the growing elderly population. And unlike other nations with advanced economies, the U.S. has very modest government policies requiring employers to give their workers benefits such as paid family leave and child care. The United States federal government provides only unpaid leave – and only for some parents – to care for newborns or sick family members and most parents do not qualify for government child care programs.

Work and Family shows that providing short to moderate periods of paid parental leave (from three to twelve months) for all workers, is likely to have positive benefits for child and family wellbeing, and is unlikely to have negative repercussions in the labor market. It also explains the ways that increasing access to high-quality early childhood education and care could ease work-family conflicts and promote sizable gains in school readiness for disadvantaged children.

But, given the difficult state of the American economy and the large, growing federal deficit, what can we realistically expect from federal policy makers in this area?

Rather than focus on broad policy change, discussions at the Brookings Institution event focused on the role that state and local governments, as well as employers, might play in helping families deal with the demands of work, namely, by promoting workplace flexibility.

“Allowing employees more control over their hours and more flexibility to adjust hours or work location when family demands arise can lead to increased employee productivity, satisfaction, and retention. Far from representing a cost to employers, such policies, if well designed to take into account the needs of both employers and employees, can yield benefits,” notes Work and Family, a finding which was echoed at Brookings by Ernst & Young’s Flexibility Strategy Leader Maryella Gockel and volume author and Co-Founder and President of the Families and Work Institute Ellen Galinsky.

Unfortunately, as Galinsky, Waldfogel, and Brookings’ Ron Haskins all mentioned, low-income employees, who often have the greatest need for workplace flexibility, generally have the least access to it.

Heather Boushey, volume author and Senior Economist at the Center for American Progress, took this point further, suggesting that workplace flexibility is the ‘next step’ in anti-poverty policy.

“We did all that work on welfare reform in the 1990’s,” said Boushey, “that encouraged low income individuals, especially women, to work… and so [workplace flexibility] must be the next step, right? We want that single Mom in the workplace, but we have to make sure that she can stay in the workplace, that she can hold on to her job while taking care of her children.” Employer flexibility policies that allow parents flexible time off when children are sick, paid sick leave when parents themselves are sick, and leave arrangements for the birth of a child can help low-income individuals maintain their income, and hopefully head off poverty.

Employers can enact such policies voluntarily and relatively quickly. The Families and Work Institute provides guidelines that can help guide employers as they implement workplace flexibility:

And there is also a role for local and state policy makers to play. Over the past few months, even in the depths of this recession, 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 information on the volume, go to: Click here for a full transcript of the Brookings Institution event.