THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Joan Williams Headshot

Professional Flexibility for Hourly Workers

Posted: Updated:
LYNN WOOLSEY RETIRING RETIREMENT

You think flexibility for professionals is hard...

How about hourly workers? Does your moving man lose his job if he can't get to work on time because he takes his kid to school? What does your waitress do when her child care falls through? Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) will give the keynote on July 18 at a conference at University of California, Hastings College of the Law on how employers and unions can help hourly workers balance work and family.

Does that chic new restaurant create situations that leave minor children home alone? Restaurant schedules typically change every week, and provide less than a week's notice of schedules for the coming week. How can people arrange child or elder care in that situation?

The answer is: often hourly workers can't arrange suitable care at such short notice, so they get fired a lot. Many restaurants, even high-end ones, provide poor working conditions. Come hear how to do it right from Jennifer Piallat, the owner of Zazie Restaurant in Cole Valley. Piallat is a national thought leader on how to provide high-quality food and service -- and high-quality jobs. She provides stable schedules for her employees and has a simple but highly effective system that allows them to swap shifts easily when something comes up.

Also on the podium will be Lori Tubaya from Johnson Storage and Moving Company in Denver, which employs several hundred people. Flexibility for movers, I hear you say: I need them to show up when I need them. And indeed you do. Flexibility is not about changing what work gets done but about changing staffing patterns.

Here's the crucial question: does it make sense for employers today to assume that any committed, responsible worker has his family life secured so that he can show up, with little notice, on any schedule? That way of defining the ideal worker made sense in the breadwinner-housewife workforce of the 1950s, but it doesn't make sense today -- for either men or women.

About a third of Americans with small children handle child care through tag teaming. Mom works one shift, dad works another shift, and each cares for the kids while the other is at work. So if either parent is ordered to stay overtime at short notice, the family has to choose between mom's job or dad's job -- and they need both just to pay the rent.

Hourly workers who can't rely solely on parental care typically turn to relatives, neighbors and friends for child care -- most can't afford to pay for expensive child care centers. The only problem: people in their networks often have jobs with equally unstable schedules.

The July 18 conference will feature both employers and unions that have developed cutting-edge scheduling practices that ensure that employees do not have to leave a child home alone in order to keep their jobs. The challenges are particularly acute in health care because of the need for 24-7 scheduling. Barbara Grimm and Marianne Giordano of Kaiser Permanente will share the many best practices that have been developed through Kaiser's Labor Management Partnership. Can nurses self-schedule? If call center workers have workplace flexibility, is someone always available to answer the phones? Most of us would say no. But Kaiser is doing this and more -- come hear how.

Unions and employers can work together to ensure that workers are not one childcare-failure away from being fired. Netsy Firestein of the Labor Project for Working Families is the national leader on why work-family issues are a core union issue. They are not just a frill, for a very simple reason -- no matter how good your wages and benefits package is, it just doesn't matter if you get fired because you had to pick up a kid from school. Firestein, and Connie Leyva, President of the California Labor Federation and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 30, will talk about specific scheduling provisions in union contracts that help workers keep jobs they sorely need.

You thought workplace flexibility was hard for professionals? It is. But it's not impossible. Nor is it impossible for hourly workers. The conference will offer concrete best practices for employers who want to control the sky-high turnover and absenteeism that result when employers' schedules do not fit with the realities of employees' daily lives. Unions can use this business case to argue at the bargaining table that changing scheduling practices can be a win-win.

This will be a key moment for all of us to hear Lynn Woolsey, who just announced her retirement, talk about some of the issues that sent her to Congress in the first place. Remember that Woolsey was a welfare mom, and worked in human resources before being elected to Congress. She has worked tirelessly for working families in Washington. Every year, she introduced the Balancing Act, an omnibus piece of legislation designed to helping working families.

Love and work, Freud reminded us, are the cornerstones of our humanness. Hourly workers can have both -- come hear how.