Workplace flexibility is good for everyone

By Elizabeth Kristen

David Chiu, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, recently introduced innovative legislation to help working families.

Titled the Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance, the bill would allow employees to ask for modifications at work to better accommodate their family caregiving responsibilities without fear of retaliation or other negative job consequences.  The bill was originally to be placed on the ballot but now will be regular legislation as it has garnered the support from San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

If enacted, the new law would provide employees at companies with 20 or more workers with the right to request modifications at work, such as a later start time or a predictable work schedule to assist with family caregiving, and requires that the employer engage in a conversation about the request. The employer is not required to grant the request if it has a good faith business reason, and if it does grant it, can later revoke it.

A recent caller to Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center’s work and family helpline from San Francisco was trying to navigate care for her newborn when she returned to work – her baby was 2 months old.  She tried to work with her employer so that one day a week she could leave earlier than she had in the past.  She offered to stay later a different day to make it up, but her employer flatly refused and she felt crushed that they would not work with her so that she could manage childcare for her infant.

Unfortunately, her story is all too common.  Workers who need more flexible work schedules (or more predictable work hours) to attend to caring for ill or elderly parents also would benefit from this law.  Another helpline caller whose mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimers asked her employer to change her shift so she could arrange for her mother’s care.  The employer refused, without even considering whether this was feasible for the company.

As Professor Catherine Albiston, professor of law and sociology at U.C. Berkeley, recently explained, without legal protections workers who ask for flexibility are stigmatized, passed over for promotions, paid less, or seen as less committed to the job.  Because women have traditionally borne most of the responsibility for family caregiving tasks, the burden of such negative workplace consequences has fallen more heavily on women.

A study of a similar law in the UK found that businesses also benefitted from workplace flexibility.  In fact, “70 percent of employers surveyed said flexibility helped recruit better workers and kept employees engaged and motivated.”

Supervisor Chiu noted that “The experience in other countries has been extremely positive. In Britain in the first year after this law passed, one million parents requested flexible working arrangements. Nearly all of these requests were granted with little opposition by employers.”

The legislation is an important first step toward making workplaces better for everyone with family or caregiving responsibilities. Some have also argued that the bill will help San Francisco stop the flight of families out of the city.  San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children (13.5%) of any major city in the country and legislation like the Chiu ordinance may help keep families with children in San Francisco.

Elizabeth Kristen

About Elizabeth Kristen

Elizabeth Kristen is the Director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program and a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work.  Ms. Kristen began her public interest career as a Skadden Fellow at Legal Aid.  Ms. Kristen graduated from University of California at Berkeley School of Law in 2001 and served as a law clerk to the Honorable James R. Browning on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.  In 2012-13, she served as a Harvard law School Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow.  She has been a lecturer at Berkeley Law School since 2008. Legal Aid at Work together with the California Women’s Law Center and Equal Rights Advocates make up the California Fair Pay Collaborative dedicated to engaging and informing Californians about fair pay issues.

%d bloggers like this: