U.S. Lags Behind in Family-Friendly Work Policies

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Eileen Appelbaum

(WOMENSENEWS)–Women today hold two-thirds of all part-time jobs. Half of these jobs are in just 10 different industries, ones that offer relatively low pay, meager benefits and not nearly enough flexibility.

We need to create better-paying–even career-track–part-time jobs for women and men who seek part-time work so that they’ll have sufficient means to care for their families and sufficient time to maintain them.

American workplaces today are simply anachronistic, operating as if each employee still had the benefit of a full-time homemaker. In 1999, two in three married women worked outside the home. What we once thought of as the “nuclear” family now includes the traditional single-earner, two parent families, yes, but also single-earner, single-parent families; dual-earner families in which both partners work out of financial necessity; and dual-earner families in which both partners work because they want to, not because they have to.

As a result, American families of all shapes and sizes are finding themselves locked in a constant struggle to balance their work and home responsibilities. For many workers, and especially women who often work a second shift at home, time is now the central issue.

The United States, despite passing legislation in 1993 for unpaid family and medical leave, remains an outcast in the industrialized world. It is the only advanced country on the planet without paid family and medical leave. It is the only advanced nation in the world without federally mandated paid vacation days. And the state of U.S. health care is an embarrassment: 44 million Americans lack any health insurance coverage at all. This list goes on.

Private corporations in the United States have also failed to address the needs of workers trying to meet their responsibilities at home.

Other Nations Are Boldly Experimenting with Plans for Work-Family Balance

Yet methods exist elsewhere for helping workers meet these dual demands, methods that have proven successful in other countries without placing an excessive burden on employers.

Take, for example, a law firm in Sydney, Australia, where most of the lawyers are women. Each lawyer is provided with a laptop computer, fax machine, extra telephone line and cell phone. That way, they can leave work early, have dinner with their families, tuck the kids in, and then spend a few hours doing work in the evenings.

Women at the firm have successfully climbed the corporate ladder to become partner even while maintaining part-time hours. Mainstreaming part-time work is a critical way to ease the work-family conflict.

At a hospital in the Netherlands, a full-time work week is 36 hours. Workers achieve this by working 40 hours one week, or five full days, and 32 hours the next. That way they get an extra day off once every two weeks. Workers may also elect to work a permanent 32-hour week for prorated pay.

A Dutch company with 90,000 employees responded to workers’ requests for reduced hours by offering job-sharing programs. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of their part-time employees are now participating, usually by pairs of workers alternating two- and three-day workweeks.

There are many more such examples: on-site day care in Japan, paid family leave in Sweden, flexible scheduling in Australia, shorter work weeks at automobile manufacturing plants in Italy and Germany, and so on. Some of these methods are the result of government legislation, others the result of employers and employees working together to find creative solutions to the time crunch.

It’s well past time that workers in the United States were able to take advantage of the same kinds of programs. The federal government can get us headed in the right direction by enacting some important legislation.

There are costs connected to each of these ideas. However, the benefits–increasing the ability of all parents to care for their families and meet their obligations to their employers–are enormous.

We need laws that would allow for a shorter workweek for all workers, as well as limits on mandatory overtime. We need equal opportunity and non-discrimination provisions to improve the options for part-time workers and to help shrink the large gender pay-gap that still exists. Women today are still paid about a quarter less than men with similar skills and education doing similar work. If women earn more, they may be able to afford to work less during times when their families’ needs are high.

We need better investments in day care and elder care. We need universal preschool. We need before- and after-school programs for school children. And we must fix the social safety net by creating a system of universal health-care coverage and by providing social insurance for maternity leave, parental leave and long-term family medical leave.

Policies like these have usually been seen as women’s issues because women feel the lack of these programs so intensely and are often the vocal lobbyists for them. However, policies like these will give all workers the support they need to do their jobs and care for their families.

Eileen Appelbaum is the research director at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. Appelbaum is co-author of the recently-published report “Shared Work, Valued Care.”

For more information:

To download the report, “Shared Work, Valued Care”
Economic Policy Institute
http://www.epinet.org/press/releases/swvc010902.html

FMLA Survey and Information Web Site:
http://www.familyleavesurvey.homestead.com/FMLAStats.html

PBS series “Juggling Work and Family,”
resources, links:
http://www.pbs.org/workfamily/index.html


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