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Four Steps to Workplace Flexibility and Smart Scheduling

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On July 18, unions and employers came together to make work-life balance a reality for hourly workers.

The common assumption is that workplace flexibility is impractical for hourly workers. Not so: On that Monday, models emerged to offer workplace flexibility in three contexts where it might seem impossible: health care, restaurants and small business.

Jennifer Piallat, owner of Zazie Restaurant in San Francisco, is busy inventing a new model of the restaurant business. The classic model gives servers unstable schedules that change from day to day and week to week. There are good reasons for this: much of servers' compensation comes from tips, and a "bad" shift (Monday night) can yield $50 in tips, whereas a "good" one (Saturday night) can yield $300 in tips. So the instinct is to shift people in and out of the more lucrative shifts by having them work different days on different weeks.

But that doesn't fit with many workers' lives. Low-income families are more likely than other families to be tag teaming, where Mom works one shift and Dad works a different shift. That means that, if Dad's schedule is unstable (or vice versa), Mom may be unable to show up for her shift -- and may lose her job. Low-income families also are much more likely than other Americans to be caring for an elder 30 or more hours a week, and much more likely to be caring for ill relatives -- that's often one reason these families are poor.

So Piallat sets up a permanent, long-term schedule that gives each server some high-tip and some low-tip shifts. That's the first step for employers of hourly workers. Virtually any job can be restructured to achieve a more stable schedule.

A related issue was addressed by Connie Leyva, president, California Labor Federation & UFCW Local 1428, who represents grocery and drug store employees. Her union negotiated more notice of weekly schedules, requiring that schedules for the following week be posted by Friday at noon. "It doesn't seem like a big deal. It's a huge deal," she noted.

Leyva's union also negotiated a contract that guarantees four hours of work once employees report to the workplace. This addresses one of the big problems with just-in-time schedules -- often, workers show up on a slow day only to be sent home for lack of customers.

Creating a dependable schedule is only the first step. The second step is to set up a formal system for handling schedule changes. At Zazie, Piallat puts up a big Office Depot calendar. If you can't make your 9 a.m. shift, you just write your name by that shift; the first person who signs their name by yours gets the shift.

The third step is to address the issue of overtime. Netsy Firestein of the Labor Project on Working Families, who sat on the labor panel at the conference, reported that some unions have negotiated contracts in which employers rely on voluntary instead of mandatory overtime. My report "Improving Work-Life Fit in Hourly Jobs" found two additional tools for scheduling overtime that accommodate the reality of employees' lives. One is to separate the workforce into four groups, and assign each group one week a month for which they need to be available for overtime. (Piallat of Zazie commented she was going to adopt this system.) Another is to give employees vouchers that allow them either to bid for overtime, or to avoid overtime.

The final step is to offer hourly workers short periods of time off work. A key issue is allowing employees to take time off in two- or four-hour segments. This is vital for low-wage workers who cannot afford to attend a school conference or doctor's appointment if they need to take an entire vacation day in order to do so.

Marianne Giordano, president of OPEIU Local 30 and labor rep on Kaiser's labor-management partnership, reported that Kaiser Permanente -- a hotbed of best practices thanks to its labor-management partnership -- has already instituted this policy successfully. Giordano described a call center that had once had extraordinarily high turnover and low morale. "There has been a complete turnaround," she reported, as a result of workplace flexibility initiatives. "If it can be done in a call center, it can be done anywhere."

Barbara Grimm, senior vice president at the Kaiser Office of Labor Management Partnership, reported marked success with self-scheduling, and noted the importance of cross-training. Kaiser actually offers business training to workers to give them the tools they need to help work with managers to deliver the best possible patient care. "The person who is doing the job knows best how to do it," said Grimm. "Teams come up with their own staffing solutions. It usually works better that way. They can come up with better solutions in terms of work satisfaction, patient satisfaction and affordability."

If flexibility is impossible in any industry, it would seem to be the moving industry. But it isn't, reported Lori Tubaya of Johnson Moving & Storage. Jim Johnson, the company owner, heard me speak in 1995, and went home and offered telecommuting for everyone in the company. "That not only changed my life... it has benefited five generations of my family," said Tubaya. She discussed the near-zero turnover at her company among employees in charge of collections -- typically a high-turnover job. The company also offers flexibility to the movers themselves. She told the story of one mover who was a divorced father with custody of a child. He kept arriving late. "Instead of making excuses, saying the bus was late, he could just tell us he needed to come in later so he could drop his child off from school," Lori said.

Bottom line: If these employers can improve the work-life balance for movers, health care workers and retail and restaurant staff, this can be done anywhere, in any job.

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