THE BLOG
10/07/2014 07:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What the Overworked and Underemployed Have in Common

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One morning last week I joined a small gathering in a conference room at New York City's Baruch College to listen to a line-up of speakers and panelists talk on the subject of "Families and Flexibility." The event was sponsored by Scott Stringer, our NYC Comptroller, who has been promoting city-wide "right to request" legislation. In case you've missed them, right to request laws, currently on the books in many countries around the world and very slowly gaining traction here in the U.S., provide employees with the simple right to request a flexible schedule. Details--including who can ask and for what reasons, and how much leeway employers have in responding-- vary, but laws are already in place in San Francisco and Vermont, and legislation is pending in many other places--including the U.S. Congress.

Hence this event, which gave Comptroller Stringer an opportunity to strut his stuff; featured a closing keynote by Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO of the New America Foundation; and allowed a number of smart policy-makers, advocates, researchers, corporate work-life champions and workers to weigh in with their stories and data. But perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the morning was what I'll call the Great Divide between the two panels that made up the bulk of the agenda.

The first panel featured political scientist Janet Gornick; A Better Balance co-president Dina Bakst; Families and Work Institute's Kelly Sakai-O'Neill, and work-life/flex champions from two accounting firms: Marcee Harris Schwartz of BDO and Barbara Wankoff of KPMG. Moderated by New York Times reporter Rachel Swarns, the panelists conducted an interesting, data-driven discussion about why flexibility matters and the very real problems many professional men and women face achieving any kind of work-life "balance." The ideas and concerns they raised were the important stuff that is often stressed in our national work-life conversation: The business benefits of a more flexible workplace. The negative impact of overwork on both families and society at large. The dark-ages state of parental leave laws in this country, especially in comparison with pretty much every other country in the developed world.

We listened to and discussed these topics for a full hour, grabbed some more coffee, and moved on to the second panel. I wished I'd worn my sneakers: it was a dizzying leap across a conceptual chasm.

The second panel featured A Better Balance's other co-president, Sheery Leiwant, as well as sociologist Ruth Milkman and Carrie Gleason, Director of the Center for Popular Democracy's Fair Workweek Initiative. It also featured a woman named Deena Adams, a single parent who, shortly after receiving a service award for loyalty, lost her job because she couldn't find child care to accommodate a sudden requirement that she start taking on overnight shifts. (A fifth panelist, Carrie Nathan, is a union activist and hourly employee at Macy's, which apparently has an exceptionally supportive system for shift scheduling.)

At this panel, moderated by Times labor reporter, Steven Greenhouse, we heard about the other end of the spectrum. We heard about things not usually talked about in the context of work-life and not talked about enough in any context. In contrast to the (very real) problems of professional workers--so many of whom feel overworked and short on time--we now focused on the growing legions of workers who aspire, most of all, to have a full-time job. The exploitation of the underemployed has become something of a science in recent years, as technology provides elaborate algorithms that can tell employers on a day-to-day--sometimes hour-to-hour--basis exactly how many employees they need on site and how many they can just tell to stay home. Many employers use this hyper-efficiency to move workers about like pieces on a chessboard, expecting them to be on call for the next move, whenever it may come.

Please understand what this means: employees must be ready, sometimes forty hours a week, sometimes 24/7, to drop everything and show up for their minimum wage job. They have to have child care available; they can make no permanent social or vacation plans; they cannot take a class. Generally, all this readiness leads to far less than full-time work and yet by definition also makes it impossible to take a second job. One man quoted in an article by Greenhouse talked about being told in a job interview that he'd have to be on call full-time but would be able to work no more than 29 hours/week. When he objected, the interview was over. Another described asking his employer to schedule his "wildly fluctuating" 25 hours/week at the same time each day so could find a second job--and promptly had his weekly hours cut to 12. A woman commuted an hour to her scheduled shift only to be told to go home (with no pay)--she wasn't needed today.

The overworked, the underworked. The Great Divide. It's odd to wrap the phrase "work-life" around the situations of these two groups of people, yet it does apply to both. Each ultimately comes down to a lack of control over one's own time. Each apparently stems from employers' mistaken belief that providing a modicum of flexibility and predictability is bad for business (as if stressed-out employees and high turnover were good for the bottom line). Each affects more than just the people involved--it affects our families, our friends and our communities.

The good news is that some of the "right to request" existing and pending legislation around the country focuses not just on flexibility but also on predictability. The tools are at hand to make changes that affect men and women on both sides of the chasm. Did I mention that it's National Work and Family Month? Come on, people, let's get going.

Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who works with companies to put together the best possible "great place to work" competition entries and creates compelling, easy-to-read benefits, HR, diversity and general-topic employee communications. Find her and follow her blog at www.robinhardman.com.