11/26/2014 10:23 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

Rebranding 'Flexibility'

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More than ever, we are constrained by flexibility. While a generation of work-family activists has successfully pushed for workplace policies that give women and men more choice -- when to come in or go home, how many days a week to work -- "flexibility," for many, is now dreaded rather than welcomed.

Instead of greater freedom over our work and family lives, "flexibility" now often means that workers need to come in whenever the employer wants them and are sent home when demand is slack. Employers have adopted the language of "flexibility" but rebranded its meaning. This rebranding masks the move toward making work schedules increasingly unpredictable. And this is at a time when families -- increasingly single mothers and dual earner couples -- have fewer resources to cope with unpredictability.

As a new generation of politicians and activists tap into national frustrations over work schedules -- seeking important reforms like paid sick leave and advance schedule notices -- they should take note that unpredictable schedules, and the downsides of flexibility, have become far more pervasive than many realize.

While the chaotic schedules of people at Starbucks and clothing stores have been widely broadcast, the troublesome use of "flexibility" in work schedules extends well beyond retail workers. A recent University of Chicago survey shows, for example, that schedule fluctuations characterize the majority of young workers across the labor force today. The research for our book Unequal Time, in which we interviewed and observed hundreds of doctors, nurses, EMTs and nursing assistants, suggests that the burdens of flexibility extend across all levels of the labor force.

At one nursing home we surveyed, one out of three shifts was not according to the planned-in-advance schedules; employees were either working an unplanned shift or staying home when they had been initially scheduled. In hospitals, we observed staffing so lean that, in order to provide adequate care to patients, nurses often had to complete documentation after their shift ended because they were already so pressed during their official hours. Administrators vehemently objected to their staying late for the "excessive" documentation, and managers insisted they could and should have finished on time. Threatened with discipline for doing overtime, nurses punch out and work off the clock. The hospital avoids paying for the time; the nurse avoids reprimands. Since she is not on the clock, does the hospital's insurance cover her? Probably not.

In other words, flexibility today really "means the ability to do anything they want with their workforce," as one union rep put it. But while unpredictable schedules have become the new norm -- whether you are mature or young, low-wage or well-paid -- there is momentum to change these scheduling burdens.

This summer, the day after the White House Summit on Working Families, President Obama ordered federal agencies to give employees the "right to request" flexible hours. The Schedules That Work Act, recently introduced in Congress , would require advance notice about schedules, and guarantee pay if shifts are cancelled at the last-minute. California, Connecticut, and about a dozen cities have mandated paid sick leave; Massachusetts voted on a similar proposal this week.

That time -- and not just pay -- has become such a dominant factor in how we restructure work is a reflection of today's economy. Leaner staffing, technological developments and global demands have created round-the-clock work cycles. Time theft, like wage theft, has become so pervasive that battles over scheduling practices and break times are increasingly central to legislation and lawsuits, like the recent Supreme Court hearing over the off-the-clock demands on Amazon's warehouse workers. And as millions of Americans with a smartphone know, sometimes it feels as though the work day never ends.

The irony in so many disputes over time is that Americans actually want to work. In our research, professionals report that "long hours get respect," and that "when you work more, that's a big badge." Low wage workers choose to add shifts -- and not only because they need the money. In an economy in which meager pay and unpredictable hours often make home life even more stressful than the workplace, work offers a kind of respite. Coworkers become a kind of family, "because we spend more hours with them than even our families." Nursing assistants often value the people they care for: "You come there every day and you see them, some of them they get so happy when they see you, you be like, "Okay, not even my momma gets so happy when she sees me [laughs]."

These views don't make our national problem of erratic hours, flexibility as control, or wage theft go away.

An inspiring way employees respond is that they rely on one another to take charge of key scheduling problems -- swapping shifts, covering for one another in emergencies. At some organizations we studied, the only way to get a weekend off or care for a sick parent was to find coworkers to fill in. While such camaraderie may be reassuring, this requires workers to be flexible. Such adjustments are improvised and uncertain -- much like our economy today.

To meet the demands of the 21st century, flexibility needs to empower workers, propel the economy and respect what is inalienable to everyone: time.