California: An Example of State Action on Workplace Flexibility

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • David Gray Senior Fellow, New America Foundation

Five years ago, California became the first state in the nation to provide wage replacement to workers who take time for family and care giving responsibilities. Since October is National Work & Family Month, we should note of this important anniversary. I hope that light can be shined on the importance of creative public policy to help workers balance their lives through workplace flexibility.

Work life balance is a significant issue for most Americans. Polls show that 80% of Americans experience conflicts between their work and family lives. The impact on families is significant. Today's parents multitask and now children sight "uninterrupted time with parents" as their primary need. Older workers want -- and in this economy, need -- to keep working but want to do so in a different way than in the past.

In 2004, California sought to meet these needs by using its disability insurance program to help fund wage replacement for workers who take time off to have a baby or care for a relative. Five years later, there are still many questions about the effectiveness of the California program. We don't know if more workers took leave as a result of paid family leave. There are real questions of how other states or the federal government can afford wage replacement for time off in a great recession. We do know that very few workers took advantage of the program and that low-income workers were least likely to know about the program. Yet California acted and acted boldly, and more states should take notice.

What is undeniable is that work family conflicts are real and growing. There is a mismatch between the needs of families and the structure of work. Furthermore, there is a growing consensus in Washington that workplace flexibility of some kind is needed and that creative public policy is part of the solution. Flexible work arrangements, teleworking, job sharing and other policies that the private and public sectors are already employing matter. Yet more action is needed and needed now.

As California marks the important anniversary of its policy, may all those who care about improving work life balance in America take this opportunity to reflect creatively on policies that can enhance the flexibility of workplaces for the benefit of all.