By Catherine Albiston, San Francisco Chronicle
The San Francisco Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance proposed by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu lets workers request flexible or predictable work arrangements for caregiving responsibilities without fear of discrimination or retaliation.
The ordinance puts some flexibility in the outdated 40-hour workweek, which was a historical bargain between employers and laborers for wages sufficient to support a family with a breadwinner and a caregiver.
In 1940, 67 percent of families fit the breadwinner/caregiver model, but today only 20 percent of families do. In 2012, 40 percent of families with children under 18 had two working parents, and 23 percent were single-parent families relying on one parent for both financial support and care. In 2010, 81 percent of San Francisco parents living with at least one child under the age of 5 worked. No wonder more than 90 percent of American parents report work-family conflict.
Attitudes about work and family are changing along with families. Men and women aged 18 to 32 want to work less, spend more time with family, and work for family-friendly employers. They want partners who both work and care for the kids. But the workplace lags behind these demographic and cultural changes, still requiring long hours, constant availability and complete devotion.
Why do we need legal protection just to ask for flexible or predictable work? Even when employers have formal family friendly policies, workers do not use them – or even ask about them – for fear of retaliation.
Workers who use flexibility policies are often stigmatized, passed over for promotion, and paid less. One experimental study found that men and women who take family leave are seen as less committed, less likely to help co-workers and less deserving of raises and promotions, even when they perform exactly the same as workers who do not take leave. Another study shows that workers who simply ask for a flexible work arrangement experience similar penalties.
Women bear the brunt of this bias because they do most of the family caregiving. Perhaps this is why the United Kingdom, Australia, Ireland, Italy and New Zealand have right to ask laws similar to the proposed ordinance.
Although some argue that this measure will harm local businesses, employers may refuse flexibility requests for business reasons and may unilaterally revoke flexible or predictable schedules at any time. The ordinance doesn’t affect small businesses because it applies only to employers with 20 or more employees.
Employers may argue that the measure imposes unreasonable administrative burdens, but we’ve heard this before. Employers raised similar concerns about the Family and Medical Leave Act, yet government studies found that employers had little trouble implementing this law.
In fact, employers will likely benefit from this measure. Research shows that flexible work policies increase loyalty, commitment and productivity, reduce expensive turnover, and produce satisfied employees. Flexibility requests also may identify efficient ways of working that outperform the full time, on-site routine of the past.
The consequences for children, families and the broader community are equally important. During the Great Depression, Kellogg instituted a six-hour workday because it felt a moral obligation to employ more people and to encourage its workers to engage in civic activities.
As Kellogg realized, long hours and unpredictable schedules not only create child-care crises and put jobs in peril, they also leave workers with little time to engage with their children or their community. Providing flexibility doesn’t just help working families, it is the right thing to do for our city and for the next generation of citizens.
Catherine Albiston is a professor of law and sociology at UC Berkeley. She prepared this commentary with Lindsey Trimble and Christin Munsch, postdoctoral fellows, at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Stanford University.