When Flexibility Hurts By SUSAN J. LAMBERT Published: September 19, 2012

AT first glance, women at the top and the bottom of the labor market seem to have very different problems.

Professional women at law firms, in academia and in the media complain about the punishing hours — and unceasing streams of e-mail — that make it difficult to make time for their families. At the other extreme, many women in retail, restaurant and health care jobs are underemployed; they’re looking for more hours of work (and ideally, regular hours) to support their families.

But both problems share a root cause: the incentives that guide businesses’ employment practices.

Rather than being long and relentless, work hours in hourly jobs, especially low-level ones, are often scarce, fluctuating and unpredictable. Sales associates and restaurant servers might be scheduled for 7 hours one week and 32 the next. Hotel housekeepers might work Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday one week, and then Sunday, Thursday and Saturday the following week. Schedules are often posted just a few days in advance. And women in hourly jobs are likely to have less input than men in determining their work schedules, according to national surveys.

The lack of stability is especially hard on parents. Unpredictable work schedules leave them scrambling to arrange child care and reluctant to volunteer for school events or to schedule doctor’s appointments. They make it tough to establish the household routines that experts tell us are essential for healthy child development, like bedtime rituals, homework monitoring and family meal times. Unstable hours also result in unstable earnings, a nightmare for parents on tight budgets.

Well-educated women have benefited from the growing gap between workers who have college degrees and those who don’t. But low-paid women have been left vulnerable by cuts to safety net programs. In 2011, nearly half of the households headed by single mothers who worked part-time or part-year were poor (46.8 percent), compared with 8.9 percent of households headed by single mothers who worked full-time, year round.

The different pressures on salaried and hourly workers arise from companies’ trying to maximize productivity.

Professional positions come with fixed costs (yearly salaries and benefits like health insurance) that are incurred regardless of how many hours the employee works. So employers have an incentive to have those individuals work as much as possible. One person is often doing the work of two.

The inverse is true in hourly jobs, where employers have an incentive to keep each individual’s work hours to a minimum. Employers want to avoid paying for overtime and, of course, many don’t offer health insurance. Their goal is to pay only for that amount of work that is necessary.

Employers tend to keep head counts high for low-level hourly jobs so that they have a large pool of workers who can be scheduled for short shifts at times of peak demand. Technologies like computerized scheduling systems and forecasting tools make it possible to predict and monitor sales and calibrate work schedules not just by the day but by the hour. Employees are called in or sent home as needed. For each of these jobs there are often three workers available.

Although over- and underemployment create different challenges for workers, the trade-offs are strikingly similar. “Availability” is now a major form of human capital, in both high-powered salaried positions and low-level hourly jobs. Low-wage workers need to be available at all hours or risk not having work. Professionals are expected to remain electronically tethered to their jobs day and night or risk forgoing coveted opportunities. Both groups of workers lose earnings if they interrupt their careers to care for family members — as women at all points on the socioeconomic spectrum are more likely to do than their male counterparts.

Improving workplace norms may be essential to achieving gender equality, as the Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter suggested in her recent essay in The Atlantic, but it will not change the incentives that foster over-employment at the top of the labor market and underemployment at the bottom.

To do that, the government must reform the Fair Labor Standards Act. Enacted in 1938 — decades before women’s labor force participation became the norm — the law established a minimum hourly wage but did not guarantee minimum weekly hours for any job (though unions may bargain for minimum hours). This reform would encourage employers to make full use of their hourly employees instead of overhiring, at low cost, a pool of on-demand shift workers.

The law also did not mandate that salaried workers get overtime pay. Requiring overtime pay for professionals would encourage employers to minimize unnecessary face time and to hire assistants to reduce the demands on professionals.

Such sweeping changes to labor laws might be politically impossible today, in an environment that is friendly to corporations and indifferent, if not hostile, to workers. But they are essential. They would press employers to hire one worker for one job, easing work-life challenges at both the top and the bottom of the labor market. That would create more entry-level professional positions for college graduates and better-paying jobs to lift low-income families into the middle class. It’s what women want and what our economy needs.

Susan J. Lambert is an associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.

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