The past year brought us many reasons to worry about our chances of achieving that happy work-life balance we dream about—given the seemingly endless number of regulations and worker protections the Trump administration has cut, the major changes to the National Labor Relations Board, and now many questions about what the largest piece of tax reform legislation in history will do to our economy. Still, it’s worth remembering that even a tough year has a silver lining, and there is hope that our best work-lives are still ahead of us. From a national movement to snuff out toxic work cultures to state and local innovations for balancing work and family, 2017 offered some good with the bad.
Here, members of the Better Life Lab team at New America highlight five seriously good things that happened for American workplaces in 2017:
In September, the courageous voices of a few women set off a tsunami of disclosures of widespread workplace sexual harassment across sectors as varied as movie-making, news media, politics, and academia. Amplified by social media and the #MeToo hashtag that allowed women from all walks of life to share their experiences with harassment and make the case for its pervasiveness, the groundswell removed prominent men from their positions of power. More importantly, #MeToo and the surrounding disclosures, while horrifying, spurred a broader conversation about behavior in the workplace and sex and gender and power dynamics. Men and women are re-examining their workplace interactions and employers are thinking anew about how they create structures and processes to allow for victims to tell their stories and end these all-too-common abuses. —Amanda Lenhart
2. Schedule stability in Oregon
In August, Oregon became the first state in the country to pass a law ensuring schedule predictability and stability to the hourly workers of large employers. The law, which goes into effect in July, requires employers with more than 500 workers to give their employees advance notice of schedules (one week in 2018, two weeks in 2020), adequate rest (10 hours) between shifts, and the right to request certain shifts or workplaces—or pay a “predictability” premium. The law, which passed with solid bipartisan support, is designed to both put an end to the erratic and unpredictable schedules that wreak havoc on the lives, health, and livelihoods of hourly workers and to help businesses by creating a healthier environment for workers that will reduce costly absenteeism and turnover.
In recent years, increasingly erratic schedules have become the norm for the hourly workforce through a combination of new scheduling software and the pressure to cut labor costs. With behemoths like Walmart, McDonald’s, Home Depot, and Kroger, the retail and fast food sectors are by far the largest civilian employment areas in the United States. Pressure from online competitors like Amazon has forced what some call a retail jobs “apocalypse,” with, for instance, more department store jobs lost in the past 15 years than coal mining or factory jobs. The Oregon predictable scheduling law follows city ordinances in Seattle, San Francisco, and New York and is seen a model for legislation that lawmakers from both parties can support. —Brigid Schulte
3. Hawaii’s solution to the elder care crisis
In July, Hawaii passed the Kupuna Caregiver Assistance Act, ensuring that senior citizens in the state and their working family members have access to the elder care they need. The act grants primary caregivers who work at least 30 hours a week with up to $70 a day in assistance from professional home aides. Hawaii rose to face the challenges presented by an aging population and an extremely high cost of living, a challenge that the rest of the United States faces or will soon face. Working family members who also perform unpaid elder care, a role primarily held by women, can now remain in the workforce. The benefits of the Kupuna Caregiver Assistance Act extend beyond the family and into local businesses as employers can now retain valuable skilled workers.
The passing of this landmark legislation carries implications for the future of elder care in the United States. Hawaii’s program serves as a potential inspiration and a data source for how other states could enact similar legislation. For American workers increasingly sandwiched between their careers and the need to provide care to kids and their aging parents, Kapuna represents a badly needed path forward. —Roselyn Miller
4. Paid parental leave in San Francisco
Life got a lot easier for many working parents in San Francisco this year. That’s because the city passed a new paid parental leave law and became the first city in the country to offer six weeks of fully paid parental leave. It officially went into effect in January. Even before that, California was already a good place (compared with other states) to have a kid: It pays 55 percent of a worker’s salary for up to six weeks. This new city law requires that employers pay the 45 percent difference, and it was expected to raise the average weekly salary from $743 to $1,351. It could make an especially big difference for low-income populations that don’t work for big tech giants and don’t have access to generous leave policies.
Unsurprisingly, the business community’s reaction to the new law has been mixed, and some economic analysis has suggested it could slow hiring and job creation. But right now, it’s impossible to predict the ultimate outcome and impact on families and on business at large. And it’s impossible to know whether it could or should be a model for other cities. But it is possible to applaud San Francisco’s spirit of experimentation—of trying something rather than nothing and for giving the rest of the country a starting point for action. —Elizabeth Weingarten
5. The rise of remote work
As one of only two countries in the world offering zero weeks of guaranteed paid leave to workers for family or health crises (alongside Papua New Guinea), the U.S. workforce is desperate for more jobs that don’t require onsite, regularly set shifts. And 2017 seems to have made even more managers and workers converts to the glories of flexible working than ever before. According to a 2017 report from FlexJobs, a service that helps companies recruit flexible workers, remote working has increased by 115 percent in the past decade. With the uptake of new technologies like Zoom, for all your video conferencing needs; Slack, for regular interoffice chatting and info-sharing; and seemingly endless options for finding pop-in co-working spaces in your own neighborhood, the reasons for employers not to accommodate teleworking are fewer than ever.
To help meet these needs, a new job board, Werk, exclusively connects job-seekers with companies that want to attract remote and flexible workers. The demand for setups that allow Americans to both live and work at the same time is here. Here’s to hoping 2018 is the year more workplaces step up to meet it. —Haley Swenson