THE BLOG

Two Different Realities About Workplace Flexibility

02/24/2011 05:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia wants to assess the brain development of young children, she often uses a task called the Day/Night Task. A child is shown a picture of night (a moon) and is supposed to say the opposite (day). Then he or she is shown a picture of day (a sun) and is again supposed to say the opposite (night). The task measures executive functions of the brain, including whether we can resist the temptation to go on autonomic and instead follow directions.

Last week, Families and Work Institute released two reports for the Department of Labor's Women's Bureau and its cross-country National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility. If ever day was really night and night was really day, it was in these two reports on different -- yet overlapping--segments of the U.S. economy.

Our first report was on Workplace Flexibility and Low-Wage Employees. It was released in Pasadena, CA on February 17th at a Forum that drew more than 400 participants and featured Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis and Director of the Women's Bureau, Sara Manzano-Diaz.

Our second report on Workplace Flexibility in the Health Service Industries was released the following day, February 18th, in Seattle, WA at a Forum that also featured Sara Manzano-Diaz.

So why is "day" "night" and "night" "day" in these two reports?

The report on the Health Services industry shows that this industry is MUCH more likely to provide flexibility than other industries. In fact, of the 31 types of flexibility we investigate, health service employers offer greater access in 14 of them -- ranging from flex time, to moving in and out of part-time work, to gradual return to work after childbirth, to phased retirement, and sabbaticals.

The National Dialogues in Pasadena and Seattle had felt like switching between day and night, and they were! When you look at the findings side by side (Table 6 in the Low Wage report and Table 18 in the Health Services report), there are some stark differences. For example:

  • 34% of low-wage employees have access to traditional flex time, compared with 45% of health services employees.
  • 65% of low-wage employees have paid vacations, compared with 78% of health services employees.
  • 48% of low-wage employees have access to at least five days of paid time off for personal illness compared with 62% of health service employees.
  • 35% of low-wage employees have access to at least five days of paid time off for the care of sick children, compared with 48% of health services employees.

Of course, some of these differences can be attributed to other factors -- such as the fact that low-wage employees are younger, are less likely to work full time, have lower educational attainment, and have less job tenure, etc. So we decided to take a look at whether the low-wage workforce within the health services industry (40% of that total workforce) are being treated differently than those in the higher-wage workforce. And we found out that for the most part they are not.

When writing the report on the health services industry, another analogy came to mind--that of a canary in a coal mine, perhaps because I am from West Virginia and coal mines were a big part of my growing up. This canary seems to see the light outside the mine and to be getting outside, intact.

The Health Services Industry is a growth industry and these employers are more likely to see flexibility as a business tool -- a key to the hiring, development, engagement, and retention of their employees--rather than a perk or a favor (75% do compared with 65% in other industries). And that's important because our findings in both reports echo this approach -- flexibility is a business tool that can help employers and employees thrive.

This is especially important for the low-wage employees, wherever they work. Low-wage employees tend to be less satisfied with their jobs, more likely to plan to leave their employers, and in poorer physical and mental health than higher-wage employees. And that's where flexibility comes in. Having greater access to flexibility on the job substantially reduces those differences between low-wage and higher wage employees.

Let's hope that more and more employers begin to see the light!