Why Is U.S. Work+Life Public Policy So Weak: Entrenched Floors and Ceilings

At the end of January, the highly respected Center for American Progress and UC Hastings Center for Work Life Law published a comprehensive public policy call to action entitled, “The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict: The Poor, the Professionals, and the Missing Middle.” The stated goal of the report is, “to persuade policymakers and the American people that sky-high levels of work-life conflict reflect not just a personal problem but also a failure of public policy to provide for all Americans.”

Before I’d opened the report and read that last sentence, I’d hoped and prayed that it would be different from other public policy treatises for change.  But, as I feared, the report held firm to the broad, comprehensive package of heavily subsidized and regulated work+life supports that researchers and public policy advocates believe represent the minimum, acceptable standard, or floor.  And, beyond more enforcement, it didn’t offer new ideas for how to increase the support of business in the development and implementation of new public initiatives. This historical lack of employer support and engagement forms a very low ceiling that limits the access to and effectiveness of rules and regulations already in place, such as FMLA, much less new ones.

We continue to bang up against the entrenched floor and ceiling.  They are the reason the U.S. is the only industrialized country without some form of paid leave or paid sick days.  We need a new path that is open to lowering the floor and raising the ceiling if we hope to make much needed progress.  The Three Faces report offers a glimpse into what that new path might look like, and it presents a powerful business case for more supports that I hadn’t heard before.   But before I get to that….

How intractable are the high floor and low ceiling?  Based on my experience, very.

Last year, I participated in a small gathering of academic, public policy and corporate representatives to discuss the current state of work+life policy. This was the first time I’d been part of such a direct exchange between these groups.

I was part of a panel discussing innovations in work+life flexibility.  As the last person up to bat at the end of a long meeting, I listened as others shared their research and proposals ever mindful that I wanted to add a new perspective to what was already covered.  I quickly realized that there are two camps: 1) academic researchers and public policy advocates and 2) those working mostly with corporations.   Each group brought very different agendas and perspectives to the table regarding what’s needed, what’s possible, and why we need to do it.

The academic researchers and public policy advocates at the meeting spoke passionately about the need for generous, publicly-subsidized child care, elder care, paid sick days, and paid leaves, as well as government mandated schedule consistency and flexibility in hours.  The rationale for this high floor of support ranged from “social justice,” “the common good,” and “the right thing to do.”

Those with a more corporate perspective spoke of business cases and bottom line considerations.  They urged caution about any new regulations or additional costs.  The rationale for this low ceiling of support focused on the burden to business and potential loss of jobs.

Good news:  all agreed something needed to be done.  Bad news: completely different ideas on what the solution looked like.

As a researcher and corporate consultant, I’m a hybrid of the two parties and an anomaly.  I decided to try to bridge that gap and move toward mutual understanding using my experience making work+life flexibility a meaningful part of an organization’s operating model and culture.

I started my speech by noting that when I first entered the work+life field, I believed top-down, flexible work arrangement policies were the answer.  But, early on, I realized that “policy alone wouldn’t be enough to make meaningful change happen.”  I continued explaining that in my experience, policies related to formal flexible work arrangements dictated the rules, but often didn’t translate into intended action because no one took the time to change the hearts and minds of those in charge of implementation up front.

When initiating broad, fundamental, costly change we need to a better job getting buy-in from all of the stakeholders, developing the business case, and explaining the underlying “why” behind the change.  By creating readiness, strategic flexibility is more widely embraced.  I closed my comments by reiterating that, “Using policy alone to drive change in how, when and where we work and manage our lives to match today’s reality will have limited impact. We need a consensus-building process that brings all of the stakeholders together to create new solutions that meet the needs of the business and the individual.”

Warning:  Land mine!  Land mine!  Too late…

Not only did I not bridge the gap with my speech, but I experienced firsthand what happens when you challenge the validity of either the entrenched floor or the ceiling.  How intense was the reaction?  Let’s just say it was as if I’d ended my comments with, “And then after dinner, I throw kittens into the fire.”  In fact, one researcher asked me if I also advocated the reversal of all child labor laws.  What?  Um, no.  Clearly, I’d stepped on a land mine.  This was not going to be easy, and it was becoming clearer why the U.S. is unable to make meaningful progress related to work+life public policy.

Undaunted, I tried valiantly to reach a common understanding.  I pointed out the strong, viable business cases within the proposals that went beyond simply “common good.”  For example, after talking with one researcher who advocated national regulation for a minimum number of hours per shift (which I knew corporations would fight and defeat), I realized that her findings proved that most scheduling in retail environments is relatively stable.  Therefore, her research could help businesses commit to more standard, predictable shifts even without regulation.  She was unmoved in her belief that better and more policy is the only answer.

New path—lower the floor, raise the ceiling

We weren’t able to lower the floor or raise the ceiling at that meeting.  And since then Federal and state governments are even more aggressively cutting budgets, overhauling the mandates we already have, and debating much-needed spending on job creation.

If we want to pass some form of work+life policy, we need to take a new path.  We need to consider lowering the floor of minimally acceptable supports if required.  And we need to raise the ceiling of business buy-in by proving the fact that helping everyone, including families, manage their work and life organizations will be better able to compete strategically in the global economy.

Some clues as to what a lower floor and higher ceiling might look like can be found in the Three Faces report.  For example:

  • Give people some slack. At minimum, what many of the poor, middle class and professional parents and elder caregivers profiled in the report need is some slack.  The vicissitudes of care giving will inevitably rear their ugly head, whether it’s a late babysitter, or a sick child.  We need to challenge the validity of unnecessarily rigid attendance keeping and shift scheduling.  Why are they in place?  How can the process be managed differently to allow for a reasonable amount of flexibility around the margins of a person’s schedule without risking job loss?
  • It’s not just mothers. The report was full of examples of fathers, elder caregivers and grandparents facing the same work+life challenges as mothers.  Organizations need to understand these issues affect a much broader part of their population than they realize.  The negative impact in terms of stress, turnover, absenteeism, distraction, and errors is not limited to an isolated group of women who have children; therefore, the cost of not offering supports is widespread.
  • How much paid leave COULD we support? Yes, five sick days and six months of paid maternity and paternity leave would be amazing, but if that is too much for the government and corporations to support in the current economic environment, what would work?  And use the following powerful business case from the report to frame a serious discussion amongst all stakeholders:  In the global economy, the lack of work+life supports puts the U.S. at a distinct competitive disadvantage between Europe with a generous package of government supported initiatives and the less developed world where work+life supports are provided by an almost unlimited amount of extremely cheap labor. Pretty compelling call to action.

Finally, reaching consensus: Workplace Flexibility 2010 is a great example of a multi-stakeholder, consensus-building process to replicate.  Years of careful effort raised the ceiling of buy-in to a legislative approach to flexibility as high as possible while maintaining an acceptable floor of support.

Can we move past our entrenched interests and expectations?  Or are we forever stuck behind the traditional high floor and low ceiling blocking meaningful work+life public policy?  How can we craft workable solutions?  What do you think?

4 thoughts on “Why Is U.S. Work+Life Public Policy So Weak: Entrenched Floors and Ceilings

  1. Cali–I applaud you for your courage to speak from your experience and to not just “go along” but be willing to challenge accepted beliefs around this crucial business/life issue. Keep up the great work and thanks for asking the hard questions. We all appreciate the work you’re doing to champion this movement which ultimately affects us ALL.

    PS I can’t help but wonder if American company’s views on the work/life issue aren’t driven in part by our cultural bias towards “output above all else.” I just shared some thoughts on this topic on Live Inside Out where we’ve been dialoguing about our to-do list obsessed culture: http://www.facebook.com/pages/LIVE-INSIDE-OUT/84557416132

    1. Renee,

      Great to hear from you! Thank you for your support and encouragement, and thank you for the great work you are doing as well. I love the Facebook page and I think you are correct. We are getting to the point in business and in our lives where our obsessive focus on short-term “results” is wringing the much-needed space for innovation, creativity and humanity out of the system.

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