As the U.S. Secretary of Labor convenes business owners, employees, researchers and advocates in New York City 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 professional workers in the city. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) event, which focuses on this group of workers, is the tenth and final in the Obama administration’s National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility series.
The report, New York Workers Speak: The Employee Case for Flexibility Among Professional Workers, chronicles how inflexibility in the workplace hurts professional workers, their families and businesses — as well as the distinct pressures these workers face when they do have access to flexible policies. The report is based on a June 2011 discussion with a group of 13 women workers who are salaried professionals in New York City.
The workers identified heavy workloads, unpredictable schedules, challenges with supervisor discretion, and penalties for accessing existing flexible policies or arrangements as key sources of conflict between their responsibilities at work and at home. Nearly all of the participants had access to some basic form of flexibility like paid sick time, but many reported being dissuaded from using it because of job insecurity, fear of layoffs and the potential for employer retaliation. In addition, flexible work arrangements were described not as standard practice, but as perks or benefits — ones that make workers who use them feel compelled to work even harder to prove their worth and commitment. As a result, a culture of inflexibility forces many professional workers to choose between work and the well-being of their families.
“This new report and the conversations happening in New York City today shed light on the challenges faced by a group of workers who may have access to better workplace policies than others, but who still face significant barriers to using those policies, succeeding on the job and meeting the needs of their families,” said Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families and moderator of the opening panel of today’s event. “As this important National Dialogue series comes to an end, the need to use these discussions and valuable research to generate policies that help all workers — including professional ones — meet the needs of their families couldn’t be more clear.”
“The powerful words of these hardworking Latinos attest to the urgency of reforming the low-wage labor market” said Eric Rodriguez, Vice President of the Office of Research, Advocacy, and Legislation. “The stories of these few individuals illustrate conditions that are rampant in the low-wage labor market and affect millions workers across the country. These stories are a sign that there are cracks in the systems meant to protect workers. And our nation must restore basic dignity and respect for the millions of American workers who are the foundation of our economy.”
Some professional workers have successfully negotiated an array of flexible working arrangements, but many still face significant barriers and challenges in accessing the flexibility they need. New York City Workers Speak provides a qualitative analysis of the impact a culture of inflexibility has on professional workers and their families.
“Many people assume all professional workers have paid sick days that they can use to care for themselves or a family member,” said Ellen Bravo, Executive Director of Family Values @ Work Consortium. “Yet many of the workers we talked to did not feel they could use that time to care for a sick child or spouse. As with low-wage workers, the lack of access to this and other flexible work arrangements as standard business procedures affected morale, loyalty and productivity.”
The report includes solutions proposed by professional workers that can work for both workers and employers. Participants said that having flexible and part-time work options that would allow them to meet their family and caregiving responsibilities would help them to be more efficient on the job and, based on experience, promote retention of high quality employees. They identified a range of public policies that they say would help promote family friendly culture in the workplace, advocating greater roles and responsibilities for both government and business.
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 included stops in nine other cities nationwide. New York City is the final event of the series.
The National Partnership for Women & Families and Family Values @ Work Consortium report can be found here
Workers and business owners involved in the National Dialogue event are available for interview upon request.