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Workplace Flexibility: A Dual-Investment in Families and Businesses

When I was growing up, my mother switched jobs several times a year. As a single-mother raising a child on her own, she went from one low-wage job to another, desperately looking for an employer who would allow for her to balance a seven-day work week while taking care of me.

Occasionally, my mother got lucky and found an employer that would accommodate her child care schedule for a few weeks, sometimes even months. Other times, she went through spells of unemployment because she couldn’t find a job that met our needs, pushing her closer to the brink of poverty with a child in hand.

My mother’s story echoes that of millions of low-wage, working mothers nationwide.

In fact, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United recently released a new report, “The Third Shift,” highlighting the challenges that low-wage restaurant workers face while juggling work and family. Half of the 10 million workers in the restaurant industry are women: two million of them are mothers, and one million are single mothers.

In the report, child care was cited as one of the costliest expenditures for these working mothers who spend over 35 percent of weekly wages on the service while making $7.25/hour or less.

And if low wages and high costs weren’t enough of a challenge, these workers often have unpredictable work schedules, making it even harder to find reliable care for their children. Many of the workers report experiencing negative workplace consequences from trying to find care for their children, including unemployment.

Unfortunately, millions of American families today, across all industries, struggle in similar ways to find affordable, reliable child care while working.

In a recent survey of parents, 84 percent expressed that finding affordable child care is either “a challenge, very hard, or impossible.” This is no surprise given that child care costs have nearly doubled since 1985. Furthermore, over half of parents say they struggle to balance work and family responsibilities.

The American family is rapidly changing: more and more children are being raised by single mothers,  two-thirds of children now live in families where both parents or the single-parent are working full time, and working mothers make up the lone or primary breadwinner in four in ten American families today.

Just several decades ago, the average American family only needed one income-earner to live comfortably. But due to rising costs and new demands, there is not much of a choice today: we now require two-income earners to stay afloat and out of poverty.

This means that the majority of families need to work and cannot stay home to take care of the children.

It is time for businesses and employers to do more than simply nod to these drastic changes – they need to actively address them in order to keep up with the labor force. And that means joining the conversation about the need for flexible workplace policies not only to better support working families, but also to help businesses thrive.

Flexible workplace policies yield substantial gains for both the employee and employer. Employees with paid sick days are less likely to experience problems such as depression, health issues, and stress. Workplace flexibility also leads to increased productivity, retention, and job satisfaction. Eighty-seven percent of managers report higher employee productivity when there is workplace flexibility.

Nationwide, the conversation has already started. Initiatives like When Work Works, a joint-project between the Families and Work Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management, aims to use research on workplace flexibility to shift employer attitudes and practices.

For working parents, there are resources to help begin the conversation with employers and become better self-advocates for workplace flexibility.

Workplace flexibility is a two-way street: employees must ask for what they need, and employers must respond. What is easily an opportunity for improvements and gains will quickly turn into a loss for both sides if employers remain stagnant to change, and families are stretched thin with little support.

And what happens when families are stretched thin?

In the case of my family, the inevitable happened: we fell right into poverty. We eventually recovered when an employer responded to requests from my mother for a flexible work arrangement that considered her struggle to earn an income and care for a child. This decision kept her in the workforce and gave us the opportunity to climb out of poverty.

Yet, the benefits of workplace flexibility extend well beyond a handful of employees who receive it. It is a smart, preventive investment that protects the family and the child. It allows companies to keep more employees away from unemployment which is a benefit not only to the employer, but to society as a whole, while also increasing employee retention and on-the-job productivity.

Together we can reframe the conversation to create a workplace environment that better supports our children and families.

For more tips and information on how the best news, science, and research can help parents, businesses, and communities develop the best environment for kids, sign up for alerts from Too Small to Fail, an initiative of Next Generation and the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.

Follow Hong Van on Twitter: @htpham858

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