• United States

Flexibility by 2010?

Aug 10, 20043 mins

* New group takes a pragmatic view to affecting change

Some are always quick to point out, forest rangers can’t telework, waitresses can’t telework, police officers, factory workers, Wal-Mart clerks and so on. No cure-all, telework is just a perk for the professional elite, namely, journalists filing stories from cozy home offices.

Nonsense. If a job can be done at home, eventually it will be — or in India, of course. Today, you drive to the DMV and hand the window clerk a filled-out registration form and a paper check, and she inputs it into the computer system. Because many of these front-end transactions are moving online, it’s just a matter of time before organizations realize the competitive advantage to handling the back-end transactions in home offices.

But there’s something else going on here, too. Whether employees benefit from it directly or not, telework is accelerating workplace change. It’s driving organizations and employees to think hard about how they work and why, what they can expect – even demand – and how they compete. 

That’s where workplace flexibility comes in. If we can’t improve your work/life balance with telework, we can at least give you more flexibility when it comes to time off. 

Hourly wage earners are protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which sets the minimum wage and mandates after 40 hours they’re paid time and a half. Every two years, a bill called the Family Flexibility Act is introduced in Congress. The bill stipulates that hourly wage earners can bank overtime hours and use them as compensatory time if the request is reasonable for the employer. Sounds reasonable enough.

But businesses won’t back the bill, arguing such changes need to be made by amending the FLSA. Unions refuse, fearful changes to the FLSA would result in (more) employee abuse.  This stalemate’s been going on for 10 years. 

“A union whose job is to protect its constituency doesn’t want another provision in the law that bad companies can exploit,” says Chai Feldblum, director of a new project called Workplace Flexibility 2010.

Plenty of wage earners’ jobs are telework or flex-time appropriate, but because the jobs are paid hourly and unionized, there’s no way to introduce new modes of work. But if both sides can’t even agree on how to provide comp time, don’t hold your breath for telework, job sharing, compressed work weeks and the like.

“There’s a paucity of ideas in Washington right now. It’s like Washington is on a diet with regard to creative ideas about workplace flexibility,” says Feldblum, a Georgetown University law professor and chief architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

With a renewable $750,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Workplace 2010 aims to break the comp-time stalemate between businesses and unions, to help bring workplace flexibility into pretty rigid environments.

Feldblum and her group know it won’t be easy — hence the “2010.” She stresses that the group isn’t proposing any ideas of its own, and will remain neutral and bi-partisan. Its first goal is to become “the center for objective and honest information it both gathers and disseminates.”

Once its credibility is established, the group will attempt to convene conversations among adversaries in an effort to create new alliances, bring new people into the game, like the PTA, social workers, the police and fire associations. From those discussions, the group will try and nurture new and consensus ideas that these new alliances can bring to Congress.

“It’s a slow and deliberate process,” Feldblum says.