New Research, Changing Workplace Should Inform Paid Leave Debate

obama state union#PaidLeave is a hashtag getting a workout on Twitter in the last month with nearly 3,000 tweets mentioning it—buoyed by President Obama’s call for legislation mandating paid leave during the State of the Union address.

A variety of organizations that lobby for and against employment laws are gearing up to debate whether or not to pass such a law. Sadly, this will be a premature expenditure of energy on the wrong question.

The question that needs to be debated first is: How do we create a workplace that fosters a gainfully employed national workforce contributing to the success of their employers, communities, families and themselves?

To start exploring that bigger question requires an understanding of more than the problem—many employees lack the option of taking time from work to care for their own health or that of a family member without risking economic insecurity or job loss.

It requires a real understanding of and engagement with the causes of those problems: the changing nature of work.

Today, the vast majority (99%) of employers with 50 or more employees already have some system of providing paid time off (vacation, PTO or sick leave) to their employees, according to Paid Time Off, Vacations, Sick Days and Short-Term Caregiving in the United States: 2014 National Study of Employers, national data released today by the Families and Work Institute (FWI) and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). However, these systems are not universally available. Less than a third of employers offer their specific paid time off system to their part-time employees.paid time graphic

The old school model of part-time jobs is that they are inherently flexible because the employee is choosing to only work part time in order to pursue school, caregiving, a career in the arts or some other activity and is not wholly dependent on their part-time job to make a living. For those who can choose to pursue full or part-time work this is still true. However, in an economy where full-time jobs are not readily available, employees trying to make ends meet through multiple part-time jobs can find themselves without important benefits.

The old rules made sense when it was primarily teenagers working part-time jobs at the local burger shop, for example, but now that adults with children are working in those jobs as well, we should rethink what it means to have a part-time job.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people with multiple part-time jobs has grown about 11% between 2007 and 2014. Admittedly, this amounts to just under 2 million people, a large number in itself, but only a small proportion of the overall workforce (about 1% of the over 156 million people currently in the U.S. workforce). However, with concerns about the activation of the employer mandates in the Affordable Care Act in 2016 and the already rising numbers of contingent workers, the proportion of people who are working full time through multiple part-time jobs is expected to increase.

Many of these people will not be making a choice to work fewer hours overall, but instead will work the same hours for multiple employers. In an economy where full time jobs are not readily available and employment systems are built around assumptions of the causal part-time job, employees trying to make ends meet through multiple part-time jobs can find themselves without important benefits.

Before we can debate what laws are necessary, we need to decide what kind of employment landscape we are trying to create.

What are the key differences between positive and negative examples of part-time work? Do we need to change the nature of part-time work or merely create better systems for leading involuntary part-time workers back into full-time employment? Do we need different benefits and insurance norms that facilitate the kind of workforce experience and business success that America wants to be known for around the world?

So long as we continue to debate laws rather than the world we collectively create and how our various systems of government, finance, insurance and employment achieve it, we won’t really be addressing the changing nature of work and how to make work work better for employees and employers.

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