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Gender Mon Dec 28 2009

An Argument for Flexibility, Equality in the Workplace

Unable to sit through another round of It's a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve, I briefly flipped around some other tv channels before stopping on C-SPAN. The network was re-broadcasting a discussion about "The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Changes Everything," a report released in October by the Center for American Progress. The report focuses on the changing roles of women in society, outlining models for health care reform and equality in the workplace at a point when, for the first time in the nation's history, "women are half of all U.S. workers and mothers are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American families."

At one point in the Q&A discussion (around the 49:01 mark in the video), a woman who works for a non-profit agency asks Heather Boushey, a senior economist for the Center for American Progress, why the nation should be focusing on equality in the workplace amidst the recession. I found her response interesting.

Boushey argues that letting go of workers who need more time off because the may be caring for a sick child or parent is actually worse for the economy because they are the ones who will become more dependent on the state if they lose their jobs. Now is the perfect time to be lobbying for more flexibility in the workplace, she says. See and listen to a clip of Boushey talking here. I also transcribed her full response:

That's a great question and as an economist, one that I love. It's a great question to be pushed on. We are in the deepest, darkest recession of our lives. We haven't seen anything like this in generations. We're seeing massive unemployment. And moreover, we're also seeing very sharp declines in hours worked. The average hours of work per week is at lows that we've never seen before since we started tabulating data on this in 1964. So is this a good time to implement these kinds of polices? I have a couple responses.

First, many firms are furloughing workers. They're cutting back on hours, they're trying to figure out how to keep their employees on their payrolls and yet not have to pay for all of their hours of work because they can't afford to in this recession. This is a perfect opportunity to do the kinds of education and outreach around good flexibility polices. Many employers simply don't know how to do this right, and one of the key things we'd like to see the Department of Labor and the Administration do more of is provide more information to employers to help them implement flexibility. It may be that there are workers in their workplace that would like to pare down their hours, but they won't know unless they know how to ask. So it's an excellent opportunity to be talking about flexibility.

It's also a good time to be talking about the other things we need. Families still have these care responsibilities, and because so many men have lost their jobs, there are millions of women who are still working and dealing with their responsibilities as caregivers. They still need that time off to care for a child or to care for an ailing parent. We need to make sure that those workers can keep their jobs -- that worker[s] [are] not disproportionately being fired or laid off because they have a sick kid and they didn't come into work on time. Pushing the responsibility onto those kinds of families is actually bad for the economy overall because it means those who have the most care, and the most dependence, are the ones who are going to be most dependent on the state if they are the ones who are pushed out of employment. So it is a good time to focus on it. It's a good time to focus on all of these issues. Of course we need to recognize that millions of workers have been laid off and that there's a lot of unemployed people. But we do need to make sure that those workers with care responsibility are not discriminated against and they get access to the time off they need.

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