While the problems of working families enjoyed a brief flurry of attention during last year's presidential campaign, attention has since dwindled. To put these issues back on the national agenda, the Sloan Foundation's Work-Family Policy Network today (Sept. 14) released a Call to Action and a report focused on changing existing policies to alleviate these persisting family pressures.
The Network calls on the administration, state and local governments, business and labor to each do its part to put a concerted approach in place. "Integrating Work and Family Life: A Holistic Approach," written for the Network by Lotte Bailyn, T Wilson professor of management and Thomas A. Kochan, George M. Bunker professor of management, MIT's Sloan School of Management, and Robert Drago, professor of labor studies, Penn State, suggests ways in which each party can help working families while achieving their own objectives.
The Call to Action begins by stating: "American families need access to a universal paid leave policy, but the specific forms should be made flexible by building on what leading firms and union agreements already provide some workers."
Also called for are attempts to "trade reduced hours of work for employees in return for the flexibility in scheduling that employers need." With joint planning, employers should be able to support reduced hours when family responsibilities are greatest and workers should be able and willing to increase their hours when employer and customer needs peak.
The report also focuses on the ways work redesign can better fit the needs of employees and employers, efforts that are already under way in a variety of organizations. The "need to accelerate the pace of moving women into top-level positions" in corporations, unions, and government organizations is another piece of the puzzle, as are attempts to increase workers' "rights to join a union."
At the community level, many attempts are under way to coordinate childcare and elder care and the report argues that we should foster "greater investments in their services, and facilitate volunteerism in their programs."
The report concludes with a call for leadership to create "Work-Family Councils and Summits" on the local, regional and national levels.
The need for an integrated approach to work family problems, already serious, will only become more so. "While work and family have changed, the public and private policies and practices governing employment remain mired in the past, modeled on the image of an ideal worker as a male breadwinner, with a supportive wife at home," the report states. This image is not accurate for the 21st century. Most workers today, regardless of gender, have family responsibilities and married workers generally have a working spouse. Juggling children, elderly parents, household requirements, career, and relationships becomes an intolerable cycle of chaotic choices. There is no "wife" at home to organize and run the non-work aspects of life.
Employers pay for this mismatch of practice and reality with high costs of turnover, absenteeism, and lost investments in human resources. Workers face an increasing time squeeze, financial pressures, and the spillover of stress into every aspect of everyday life.
A number of leading American organizations are already dealing with these problems, but the approaches are often piecemeal and have not been integrated. Some employers offer paid family leave, but many Americans who desperately need income supports during family leave have none available. A few communities are bringing together public and private sector organizations around child care and related issues, but these community initiatives are not being brought together at a national level.
The authors sum up the Call to Action by noting: "Addressing these issues is not just good social policy: it is essential to the economy. Only by redefining out-of-date models of the family and of employment, and developing strategies that reflect the new definitions, will we benefit from the talents of the full work force."
A copy of the full report is available at http://lsir.