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Flexible Work Gains Attention of Lawmakers

June 11, 2008
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Corporate Culture, Policies and Procedures, Latest News
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Discussions about flexible work arrangements are gaining momentum on Capitol Hill, and some say lawmakers may pass a bill on the matter in the next several months.

The U.S. is behind the majority of developed nations when it comes to having statutes in place to allow for flexible work arrangements, according to a study published in May by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law. Of the 21 “high income” countries examined in the study, the U.S. finished last.

A number of governments abroad are trying to deal with falling birthrates and the pending retirement of older workers, says Ariane Hegewisch, scholar in residence at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and co-author of the study. As a result, they have introduced legislation to make it easier for caregivers to reduce their work hours, she says.

The reality of an aging workforce along with a confluence of other factors is just now instigating formal discussions about flexible work arrangements in the U.S., experts say.

During the past 10 years, the number of women workers in the U.S. ages 25 to 54 has stalled, according to the report, “Statutory Routes to Workplace Flexibility in Cross-National Perspective.” However, 19 of the 20 other countries surveyed saw an increase of women workers in this age bracket during the same period.

The trend, compounded by the fact baby boomers are starting to retire, is causing legislators to discuss what can be done to address a pending talent shortage, says Janet Gornick, professor of political science and sociology at the City University of New York and co-author of the study.

Mothers and older workers are the two populations that if they don’t have some flexibility, they will just cease to exist in the labor market,” she says.

In the past few months, Democratic presidential nominee contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have voiced their support for legislation allowing flexible work hours. Both Republicans and Democrats have introduced bills on the issue.

In December, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, introduced the Working Family Flexibility Act, which would grant employees “the right to request” reduced hours or an alternate work schedule.

If the bill is passed, employers would have to establish formal procedures for discussing employees’ needs and how to address them but wouldn’t be required to grant employees their requests.

In May, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, introduced the Family-Friendly Workplace Act. Under the bill, private sector workers would be able to work overtime and essentially bank that toward paid time off, or “family time.” Currently, only public sector employees have family time.

No matter who becomes president in November, experts believe that some type of family-time legislation will pass.

“I think that these are marker bills,” says Kathleen Lingle, director of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress. “We are about to have a change in government one way or the other, and given all of the factors going on I think some kind of legislation is going to happen.”

—Jessica Marquez

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