Employment of Women: Survey of Issues & Initiatives — Workplace Flexibility

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Employment of Women: Survey of Issues & Initiatives

By Beth Hanson, with George Lenard

workplace flexibility-Stressed working woman glancing at clock showing almost 5 PM

Women’s Bureau Priority Two: Workplace Flexibility

The Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor is a government agency created to monitor and remedy barriers to full integration of women into the workforce. This series looks at the current priorities identified by the Women’s Bureau.

Workplace flexibility is the second one.

The Women’s Bureau takes the following position on the need for workplace flexibility as it affects the employment of women:

The labor force has changed significantly during the last few decades, including the increase in the number of working women and working families. The demands of work and personal life, including family care giving and personal health or education, require that employers adapt to the changing needs of its workers. Policies that support the realities of work and life balance are critical to our economy. Promoting work-life balance, improving women’s working conditions, including the ability to retain employment while caring for families, is essential for a strong, healthy economy and nation.

National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility

The Women’s Bureau recently completed the “National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility,” a series of events addressing workplace flexibility issues as applied to various industries and types of workers.

The purpose of the events was to:

  • Raise awareness and exchange best practices, real stories, and ,newest research on ,impact of workplace flexibility.
  • Expand knowledge base and base of support on flexibility by reaching out to new partners and stakeholders.
  • Stimulate dialogue among employers and business owners on making flexibility work.

In conjunction with these events, the Bureau provided a valuable set of written materials on workplace flexibility, including:

See full list of reports and publications by organizations that provided materials at National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility events.

Flexibility for Hourly Workers: A Different Sort of Challenge

An article on Dilemmas Faced by Hourly Workers, summarized briefly below, examines the workplace flexibility issues faced by hourly workers, both men and women, and their employers. The author is Joan Williams, of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

This issue has received more attention recently, in part because of successes in improving flexibility for salaried workers. There is some flexibility inherent in a salaried position that is typically viewed as impossible or more difficult to provide in the hourly context, so the issue of improving flexibility for hourly workers presents some different challenges.

The family care issues faced by hourly workers have changed dramatically in recent decades. Traditionally, many hourly jobs were held by unmarried, childless women, and many fathers working hourly jobs were married to homemakers, so there was minimal conflict between work duties and family care obligations.

Now, however, “two-thirds of low-income families are headed by single parents” and often in two-working-parent families “parents handle child care through tag teaming, where mom works one shift, dad works a different shift, and each cares for the kids while the other is at work.”

Given these work-family patterns, the rigid schedules many hourly workers have make it difficult for them to attend to family issues and emergencies when they arise:

Most hourly employees punch in and punch out at the same time every day and trigger no-fault absenteeism policies if they are late or absent. These progressive discipline policies give employees points for missing work, regardless of the reason why.

Employees can be fired under such policies even though their final absence under a no-fault system is for a valid family-related reason, such as:

“the situation where a single mother received a phone call telling her that her four-year-old child was in an emergency room with a head injury; she was fired when she left to join her daughter because that absence was her final “point” in a no-fault absenteeism system.

While this example may seem extreme, work-family conflicts are common, and involve elder care as well as child care. Nearly one-third of hourly employees have elder-care responsibilities; 57 percent of them need time off as a result. Almost one-third of welfare-to-work mothers have children with chronic health problems. According to Williams, one study found that 30 percent of hourly workers took time off for family care each week.

Is Conflict Between Hourly Workers’ Family Responsibilities & Employers’ Scheduling Needs Inevitable?

Williams observes:

The schedules of hourly workers often are erratic in addition to being rigid. “Just in time” schedules typically change from day to day and week to week, with less than a week’s notice of the schedule for the coming week. Schedules in retail typically are posted on Tuesday for the week to begin the following Sunday. This makes arranging child and elder care virtually impossible.

But employers have good business reasons for these scheduling practices:

Just-in-time schedules try to control labor costs by maintaining a tight fit between labor supply and labor demand, so that nurses’ aides are sent home if the patient census is lower than anticipated, store clerks are sent home if fewer customers appear, and hotel housekeepers are kept late during periods when the hotel is fuller than usual.

So there actually is some scheduling variability, but only when it benefits the employer. Such “flexibility” just exacerbates employees’ work-life conflicts.

Often, high employee turnover due to enforcement of rigid scheduling and no-fault absenteeism policies is seen as simply an inevitable cost of business, and not carefully weighed against the assumed savings from such policies.

But the cost of turnover is high indeed: “It costs 30 percent to 75 percent of an hourly worker’s annual salary to replace her when she leaves,” says management expert Lisa Disselkamp. If a company has to replace 300 employees earning $20,000 a year, that’s $1.8 million.

Williams says:

Most employers aren’t looking to control these costs because they consider high turnover among hourly employees unavoidable, because so many of the workers live disordered lives and lack basic job skills like showing up on time.

In fact, the disorder in these employees’ lives may well stem from the schedules employers hand them — not from employees’ irresponsibility but from their family responsibilities.

Any responsible adult will arrive late at work if the only alternative is to leave a toddler or seriously ill adult home alone when a caregiver arrives late. A key challenge for HR is to eliminate scheduling that places workers in that position.

Often there are changes in scheduling practices that reduce turnover costs — and do so by more than they increase labor costs due to the inefficiency and lost productivity often caused by employee absences and tardiness.

The Center for WorkLife Law has developed a methodology by which it can identify the scheduling practices that can create a optimum match between a given workforce and the corresponding business process demands. Williams says:

Through a five-step process, this tool gives employers a methodology by which it can identify the scheduling practices that can create a optimum match between its workforce and its business process demands.

If you want to be one of the few visionary employers willing to pilot and help refine the tool, please contact the Center.

The Center has also released an extensive report, “Improving Work-Life Fit in Hourly Jobs

The first part of this document describes the problem in detail, rather than providing solutions, but this descriptive portion is well worth reading as background to understanding what types of situations often underlie hourly employee absenteeism and turnover.

Then, beginning on p. 24 the report discusses effective scheduling practices. This extensive exploration of flexibility options for an hourly workforce is a must-read for any employer concerned about this issue.

Some key points are these steps to implementing changes that are a win-win for employers and employees:

  1. Survey your employees
  2. Find the hidden schedule stability (identify the part of the schedule that is in actual practice variable, and avoid holding up posting of the entire schedule until those changes are made)
  3. Lengthen the time period within which supervisors can “stay within hours” (give supervisors more flexibility to hit variable staffing targets)
  4. Determine the optimum number of employees (avoid over-hiring to ensure adequate staffing for peaks if this results in inadequate hours for most employees, most of the time)
  5. Determine the optimum mix of full and part-time employees (part-timers may be cheaper, and may provide easier flexibility for the employer, but often have a much higher turnover rate)
  6. Determine the optimum advance notice of employees’ schedules (more notice often allows employees to make better arrangements for family needs, reducing absenteeism and turnover)

Beginning on p. 28, this report also provides detailed information on effective practices to improve
work-life fit in hourly jobs more generally.

See also Fast Company, “Can Retail, Call Center, And Housekeeping Staff Have Work-Life Flexibility?”

Breastfeeding Rights Under “Obamacare”

The need for workplace flexibility to improve work-life balance is part of a recent push for legislation impacting the workplace. One legislative success is in the area of time off to enable working mothers to continue breastfeeding after returning to work.

The Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor is now enforcing the break time for nursing mothers as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), which became a law in March 2010. This law ensure that breastfeeding mothers will have a time and place shielded from view and intrusion by coworkers and the public where they can express breast milk at work. According to Congressional testimony of Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis:

The Wage and Hour Division recently assumed another responsibility related to work-life flexibility, enforcing the new break time for nursing mothers law, ensuring women who choose to breastfeed their infants have the ability to continue to do so even after they return to work.

We are working expeditiously to ensure both nursing moms and employers have the guidance they need to not only invoke their rights and comply with the law, respectively, but also make the appropriate arrangements that work both for the nursing mother and the employer.

The Department’s role in this effort will undoubtedly help nursing moms achieve a balance between their jobs and caring for their children, and help employers retain good workers at great economic benefit to them and the workforce overall.

Expanded FMLA Definition of Parent: Flexibility For Non-Traditional Families

In addition, the Wage and Hour Division took steps to ensure more workers can take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by issuing an Administrator’s Interpretation clarifying the definition of “son or daughter” so that those employees who care for a child receive parental rights to FMLA leave for the birth or placement of a child, to care for a newborn or newly placed child, or to care for a child with a serious health condition, regardless of legal or biological relationship.

Statutory Definition

The FMLA defines a “son or daughter” as a “biological, adopted, or foster child, a stepchild, a legal ward, or a child of a person standing in loco parentis.”

The FMLA also defines “parent” to include not only the biological parent of an employee but also “an individual who stood in loco parentis to an employee when the employee was a son or daughter,” for purposes of FMLA leave to care for a parent with a serious health condition.

FMLA Regulations

The FMLA regulations define persons in loco parentis as including those “with day-to-day responsibilities to care for and financially support a child, or, in the case of an employee, who had such responsibility for the employee when the employee was a child.”

The regulations specifically state: “A biological or legal relationship is not necessary.”

Legislative Intent

Citing a Senate Report, the Administrator’s Interpretation states:

Congress intended the definition of “son or daughter” to reflect “the reality that many children in the United States today do not live in traditional ‘nuclear’ families with their biological father and mother. Increasingly, those who find themselves in need of workplace accommodation of their child care responsibilities are not the biological parent of the children they care for, but their adoptive, step, or foster parents, their guardians, or sometimes simply their grandparents or other relatives or adults.” Congress stated that the definition was intended to be “construed to ensure that an employee who actually has day-to-day responsibility for caring for a child is entitled to leave even if the employee does not have a biological or legal relationship to that child.”

Administrator’s Interpretation

The main additional gloss on in loco parentis provided in the Interpretation is that a person may have this status even if they do not provide both day-to-day care and financial support. For example, a live-in partner to a child’s parent who is not the child’s biological parent and does not contribute financially to the child’s support, but does assume child care responsibilities when the parent is working, is considered in loco parentis and entitled to FMLA leave as such.

Another important point in the Interpretation is that an employee may have more than two in loco parentis “parents.” For example, if a child’s divorced parents remarry the child has four “parents” for FMLA purposes, including both step-parents.

Grandparents or other family members who who assume ongoing responsibilities for care of a child following death of a parent or because of the incapability of the parent to provide care are also in loco parentis under this rule.


The Women’s Bureau’s prioritization of workplace flexibility is on target, though it is not just a women’s issue and not just a parent’s issue.

The Bureau has assimilated much useful information on the subject, linked above. Flexibility in the hourly employee context is drawing more attention; solutions are more challenging but potentially beneficial to employers as well as employees.

The recently established breastfeeding right and broadened recognition of in loco parentis relationships for FMLA purposes contribute to flexibility needed by some employees as they balance work and family obligations.

Series NavigationEmployment of Women: Survey of Issues & Initiatives — Equal PayEmployment of Women: Survey of Issues & Initiatives — Higher-Paying Nontraditional & Green Jobs for Women

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