Women and Work: Why Employers’ Work/Life Policies Can—and Should—Survive the Recession

This piece is part of a blog carnival on women and work. Joan Williams is a Distinguished Professor of Law at U.C. Hastings College of the Law. She is the Director of the Center for WorkLife Law and the Co-Director of the Project for Attorney Retention.

It’s no surprise to the vast majority of us who have both a job and family responsibilities that something’s not working at work. The American workplace is perfectly suited for the American workforce… of the 1950s. Even today, when 46% of the U.S. workforce is made up of women and 81% of women have children by age 44, most good jobs in the U.S. (those with good benefits and pay and opportunities for advancement) are designed around the ideal of a worker who is available for and devoted to work 24/7, with no domestic responsibilities.

Some employers, understanding that having a mismatch between your workforce and your workplace doesn’t make good business sense, have allowed for greater flexibility, quality reduced hours jobs, telecommuting, and other workplace policies that better reflect their workers’ lives. Businesses—at least those that want to be profitable—do not institute policies that hurt the bottom line; which is why claims that employers are cutting back on work/life improvements due to their cost should be read very closely.

“Recession Pushes Some to Eschew Flexible Job Policies,” writes Annys Shin of The Washington Post on Monday—only one of a flood of stories reporting that telecommuting, reduced-hour schedules, and similar programs are dying on the vine during the current recession. Shin’s done some responsible reporting here: she acknowledges a mixed picture (more of that later). But her focus, front and center, is on employers eliminating work/life initiatives as the kind of frill that naturally gets suspended in hard times, and that in a recession workers just want to keep their nose to the grindstone anyway.

Not so fast. Let’s look closer at the three assumptions that underlie this story line.

First assumption: employers are responding to recession by eliminating work/life programs. As Shin eventually points out, some aren’t. “Flexibility programs are helping us” respond to business needs in the current downturn, said Alison Hooker, of Ernst & Young. The challenge is to match supply and demand—if you have less work, you can’t go on for very long paying the same number of people to work the same number of hours. Having non-stigmatized flexible programs in place gives employers options. Sigma Group, an advertising firm, allowed some employees to reduce their hours, which allowed them to save jobs. Firms as diverse as Ernst & Young and George Mason University are encouraging employees to “test drive” flexible work options, with considerable success. KPMG Europe asked staff and partners to work a four day workweek or take a sabbatical of up to three months. Many did, saving jobs in the process.

How come we don’t hear more about companies who are responding to the recession by encouraging flexible work, telecommuting, and reduced hours, as an alternative to layoffs?

Second assumption: employers are saving money by eliminating “frills” like flexible work arrangements. Shin quotes someone from the Society for Human Resource Management: “Should we do telecommuting? They don’t care. They’re worried about where are they going to get payroll next week.”

Maybe telecommuting is one way to make payroll next week. Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Massachusetts has hundreds of employees telecommuting as a result of a policy instituted three years ago. That policy is helping to cut costs, given that an employee who works from home does not need an office. Johnson Moving & Storage Company of Denver Colorado, where one out of three headquarters employees works flexibly, found that it had so many telecommuters that it saved a lot of money on its new headquarters building—it needed less office space.

Telecommuting is only the beginning. Best-practice employers are encouraging flexible work as a way of avoiding layoffs for a simple reason: layoffs are expensive. The Project for Attorney Retention, which I co-direct, calculated that laying off one attorney in a practice group with average compensation of $200,000 can save $211,000.  But having all six attorneys in the practice group voluntarily agree to reduce their hours and salaries by 20% can save $240,000. And keeping the whole department means that, when the economy ramps up, the firm will be able to ramp up much more quickly than did those firms that simply laid off much of their staff. Indeed, one reason the accounting firms are so interested in using flexibility rather than layoffs to the maximum extent possible is that, in the last recession, layoffs meant they lost business once the economy picked up because they lacked the capacity to handle the work. 

The fact that many employers are choosing to cut costs through layoffs does not mean that allowing flexible work is not an attractive alternative that many employers are using.

Third assumption: employees aren’t interested in working flexibly during a recession. To quote Shin’s story, in a recession people naturally back away from flexibility programs because they are afraid of being fired. “Work as many hours as you possibly can. Make yourself indispensable” (quoting the executive director of Mothers and More).

For many women, the only alternative to flexible work is quitting—what has been described as mothers “opting out” of the paid workforce, regardless of the limited choices involved. And women are not very interested in “opting out” right now because they fear that the breadwinner husband they rely on will be laid off. Ironically, sometimes people working remotely or who have reduced their hours are not considered for layoffs because they save the company money (through reduced rent or reduced salaries). 

No doubt about it: some people are terrified that flexible work will make them vulnerable in this environment. But often that reflects not their “preference” but their fear of stigma or outright bias, some of it illegal. Indeed, The Center for WorkLife Law, which I direct, runs a hotline for workers with family responsibilities, and we saw a sharp uptick in the number of calls right after the recession hit. (Things have since calmed down.) There is no doubt that some employers are targeting pregnant women and women on flexible work arrangements. But that is not evidence that women no longer want—or need—to work flexibly: it’s evidence that women are being targeted for doing so. 

Some of that targeting is probably illegal. One story, probably apocryphal, is that when one man suggested laying off all the part-timers, a woman countered with the perky suggestion that they lay off all the disabled people. The point is that both steps may well be illegal: an employer who lays off all the part-timers will in many contexts have a layoff composed largely or exclusively of women. Not a wise move.

Is this the new “Opt Out” story? You know, the one that depicts women happily “opting out” of work and heading home to care for their kids, despite the real data that many women do not and that those who do would often prefer to work part-time but were unable to do so in the all-or-nothing American workplace? 

Like the “opt-out” story line, the story line of employer’s recession-time cuts to work/life initiatives is misleading. The message underlying much of the current coverage is that flexible work was an expensive, feel-good accommodation that naturally disappears in a recession. 

In fact, the real story is that employers with telecommuting and flexible programs that really work are finding that these new ways to work can enhance their competitive position in a recession. And that employers who unfairly target part-timers and pregnant women may well find their layoffs to be far more expensive than they thought—in legal fees.

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