As the U.S. Secretary of Labor convenes business owners, employees, researchers and advocates in Chicago today for a discussion on workplace flexibility, the National Partnership for Women & Families and Family Values @ Work Consortium have released a new report detailing the experiences of manufacturing workers in the Midwest. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) event, which focuses on workers in the industry, is the seventh in the Obama administration’s National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility series.
The report, Midwest Workers Speak: The Employee Case for Flexibility in Manufacturing Jobs, chronicles how inflexible workplaces hurt manufacturing workers and their families, and adversely affect businesses. It is based on April 2011 interviews with a dozen permanent and temporary manufacturing workers from the greater Chicago and Milwaukee areas.
The workers interviewed identified increased workplace pressures due to outsourcing, corporate takeovers and layoffs as key sources of conflict between their responsibilities at work and at home. Workers said that competition for jobs amplifies workplace pressures and rigid or unpredictable scheduling. They also said that they face a high risk of workplace discipline or job loss when they ask for flexibility. The few workers who described having positive experiences said that real flexibility enhances productivity and promotes workers’ well-being and loyalty.
“This new report — like the important conversation happening in Chicago today — explores the challenges faced by workers whose livelihoods depend on an industry rife with inflexible workplace policies that fail to meet their families’ needs and leave their futures hanging in the balance,” said Vicki Shabo, Director of Work and Family Programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families, who will lead a breakout discussion at the event. “The Department of Labor events and the data and research they have generated are important steps in identifying the best policies to address the serious challenges faced by these hard-working people and their families.”
Few manufacturing workers have access to flexible workplace policies. Temporary workers face additional challenges — all workers acknowledge that temporary workers are paid less than permanent workers, have no benefits, and have no job security even when they have been assigned to a single worksite over a long period of time. Midwest Workers Speak provides a qualitative analysis of the impact this inflexibility has on these workers and their families.
“We applaud the Department of Labor for seeking out workers’ perspectives,” said Ellen Bravo, Executive Director of Family Values @ Work, who is delivering the closing keynote at the forum. “For many manufacturing workers, the term ‘flexibility’ has come to mean ‘disposability’— temps doing the same job for much lower pay and no benefits, temps and permanent workers having no control over their time and facing discipline when they or a family member is sick. Through these voices, we see the harm to workers and families and to the business bottom line from inflexible policies — and the benefits where policies allow workers to be good employees and good family members.”
The report includes solutions proposed by interviewees that can work for both permanent and temporary workers, as well as employers. Participants said that having basic flexibility at work, including access to paid sick days, would help them to enhance their companies’ productivity and profitability while protecting their own well-being. They advocated a greater role for government — working with business — in the creation of basic flexibility and workplace protections for all manufacturing workers.
The report reinforces the theme of the National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility — the increasing need for and benefit of workplace flexibility for employees and businesses. The series started in October 2010 and has spanned cities throughout the country.
The National Partnership for Women & Families and Family Values @ Work Consortium report can be found here.