Flex in the City: Municipal Policies for Work-Life Balance
Last week, President and First Lady Obama hosted a forum on workplace flexibility to “discuss the importance of creating workplace practices that allow America’s working men and women to meet the demands of their jobs without sacrificing the needs of their families.” As Art Levine notes in In These Times, the issue is a critical one even at a time when millions of Americans are out of work entirely, and ready to accept just about any job. Jobs that don’t allow people to care for their own health, provide support for elderly or ill relatives, or be there when their children need them shut workers out of the labor market, stunt the well-being of the workforce and families, and harm businesses themselves by impairing productivity and morale. As we rebuild our economy, we need to construct it on a foundation of good jobs. After all, workplace flexibility strengthens both families and companies. With millions of working Americans balancing their jobs with care-taking responsibilities for children or elderly relatives, policies like paid family leave and paid sick time are also vital to rebuilding the nation’s middle class.
When it comes to workplace flexibility, as with so many other issues, the federal government can look to proven policies in cities across America. San Francisco’s successful law guaranteeing paid sick days to every person working in the city is allowing working people to go to the doctor and care for ill family members without missing pay. And, as DMI recently found, the policy has not harmed job creation in the city as opponents initially argued that it would. In fact, there are reasons to believe that guaranteeing paid sick time strengthens businesses by making workers more productive, curtailing the spread of contagious diseases, and reducing employee turnover.
It’s no wonder that Michelle Obama reiterated the Administration’s support for the Healthy Families Act, a federal law modeled in San Francisco’s policy.
No city makes the case that flexible workplaces are good for business more than Houston. The city’s Flexible Workplace Initiative encourages employers to provide workers with options for telecommuting and alternate work hours and provides technical assistance to businesses in setting up and evaluating flexible workplace policies. Houston promotes workplace flexibility as a means of improving transportation mobility – not employees’ work-life balance. Yet the potential benefits for employees and their families are can’t be ignored, a fact the city implicitly recognized by noting that “Employers who offer flexible work options are in high demand by some of the most talented employees across the country. Being designated as a Flexible Work Place employer makes it easier to distinguish your organization as a desirable place to work…”
San Francisco and Houston represent very different approaches on workplace flexibility. San Francisco picks up the stick, mandating that all employers provide their workforce with paid sick time while Houston offers the carrot, establishing a voluntary program encouraging businesses to provide flexible schedules and showcasing those that do it well. Federal policy should combine the best of both: closing off the lowest of the low roads while promoting the benefits of the high road and making it easier and more attractive to travel.