In 2010, President Obama held a workplace flexibility forum. The forum included representatives from companies like Dow Corning, JetBlue, and PNC Bank, along with union reps, researchers, and business leaders. At the time, Obama said, “Workplace flexibility isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s an issue that affects the well-being of our families and the success of our businesses.”
Unfortunately, his message didn’t really sink in. According to the 2014 National Study of Employers from the Families and Work Institute, overall there is less support among American employers today for a flexible work culture than there was in 2008. The percentage of employers that allow at least some employees to take a career break for personal or family responsibilities has gone from 64 percent in 2008 to 52 percent in 2014. Additionally, 64 percent of employees say that their supervisors are encouraged to assess them by what they accomplish rather than by face time—that’s down from 71 percent in 2008.
It’s not all bad news. Some forms of flexibility—mostly relating to when workers are allowed to start and end their workdays and telecommuting—have become more common. But the overall picture is disconcerting, since it seems like any openness to a person working fewer hours total even for a short period of time is declining. According to the study’s authors, Kenneth Matos and Ellen Galinsky:
Considering that these changes have occurred primarily during the recession and the three years following its official end in 2009, they may be a result of employers focusing on maintaining smaller workforces and a reduced emphasis on long-term retention of employees interested in taking extended periods away from work.
That employers are not interested in retaining employees who need to take time off from work is playing itself out in pretty soulless ways. It’s not just that employers are less likely to allow sabbaticals, job-sharing, and part-time arrangements than they once were. It’s also that they leave their sick, pregnant employees in the lurch. “Employers have become significantly less likely to provide full pay during leave for maternity-related disability between 2008 and 2014.” Only 9 percent provided full pay, down from 16 percent in 2008.
For all the lip service paid to flexibility, we don’t need more White House forums. We need laws. On the local level, San Francisco and Vermont have passed legislation that allows workers to ask for flexible or predictable work schedules without fear of reprisal. Employers don’t have to grant those requests, of course; the laws merely allow workers to ask for different arrangements. It’s a small move forward, but at least it’s something concrete.