As we approach Mother's Day, the biggest gift that many moms are looking for is a gift of time and balance. There is a mismatch between the structure of American work and the needs of most families. Fortunately, there may be increasing hope for parents and others struggling with work life balance. Poll after poll shows the desire for more workplace flexibility for American workers and families.
The landscape might finally be turning towards constructive action in this space. On March 31, President Obama hosted the White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility. The President and the First Lady talked about their work-life balance challenges in a way that could resonate with the 85% of Americans who report that they struggle with work-life balance. More and more companies are turning to workplace flexibility policies to recruit and retain workers. Consequently, last spring, the Society for Human Resource Management announced a work-life balance policy platform, which highlighted workplace flexibility, and included recommendations to help businesses provide extended time off. At the White House Forum, Office of Personnel Management Chief John Berry announced plans to expand telework and efforts to make the federal government a more flexible employer. On April 22, the House Worker Protection Subcommittee held a hearing on the Work Life Balance Award Act of 2010, which would create and recognize incentives for businesses to support work-life balance, and has real potential for bipartisan support.
Moreover, the development in Australia of new "right to request" legislation provides a possible model for the U.S. Employers who have told me over and over that if employees simply ask for flexibility and time off, they would grant the requests in most cases. Great Britain enacted a law in 2004 to give employees the right to "request" a flexible schedule. However, "right to request" legislation has gone nowhere in the U.S., in no small part because most proposals contain enforcement mechanisms that are unacceptable to business. The Australian model allows an employer to deny the request for legitimate business reasons and there is no review of the decision. With the enforcement provisions removed, the Australian model, or some version of it, provides a starting point for a model bipartisan conversation about increasing such workplace flexibility. Conversations between employers and employees about flexibility are going on in the private sector each day and efforts to enhance them, such as Australia's model, are significant.
Finally, the economic downturn has potential to highlight bipartisan work-life balance policies. An April 5 paper, co-authored by Kevin Hassett of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Dean Baker of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, argues that the best way for America to reduce its near-double digit unemployment rate is to promote work-sharing. The idea is that rather than laying off workers, employers would be encouraged by federal policy to reduce the hours of workers. So more workers would stay attached to work, but work fewer hours. Rather than paying unemployment insurance to workers who have been laid off and have no workforce attachment, those same funds would help make up the salaries of the workers who have reduced hours. Work-sharing is an important work-life balance concept that allows people to work reduced hours and spend more time with family. Interesting, the depression era Fair Labor Standards Act and its 40 hour work week became law as a kind of work sharing concept to reduce unemployment. The economic crisis is allowing leaders on both sides of the aisle to come together to argue for the expansion of flexibility policies.
The result of the White House Forum is new momentum on workplace flexibility. For the first time in many years, the environment is beginning to look more promising for policies that help mothers, and all Americans, find more work-life balance.