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Flexibility for Whom?

Imagining the workplace as a network of voluntary relationships has dire political implications. For example, in 1997, a California state agency, the Industrial Welfare Commission, bowing to employer pressure voted to reinterpret an overtime regulation dating back to 1918. For almost eight decades, the state had mandated that employers had to pay overtime after eight hours of work per day. The agency ruled instead that henceforth employers should have to pay overtime only after workers have completed a total 40 hours of work, no matter how many hours they worked on any particular day. Under this new rule, an employer could demand that a worker stay on the job for regular pay for 12 hours a day or even longer just so long as the total workweek did not exceed 40 hours.

The agency, as well as the leading Republican politicians in the state, insisted that their intention was entirely innocent. They pretended to act in the workers’ best interest. Given the choice, they argued, workers would prefer to have as much flexibility as possible, allowing them to adjust their schedule to meet their individual needs. I do not recall hearing a single worker speaking up in appreciation for their efforts. After all, if this option actually represented a choice for workers, why not let the workers choose that option?

Nobody denies that many workers could benefit from flexible hours. Indeed, one survey of British workers found that flexible working hours were more important than money for nearly a third of people looking for a new job (Department of Trade and Industry. United Kingdom 2002). Employers are less interested in workers’ need for flexibility. Many employers prefer to have workers on overtime rather than hiring additional workers. Even though employers have to pay time and a half for overtime, employers actually save money by giving their workers the overtime premium. Providing benefits, such as pensions, health care, or vacation time, to additional workers is more expensive than paying time and a half to some of the existing labor force. As a result, mandatory overtime is common in the United States (Lonnie Golden and Helene Jorgensen, “Time after Time: Mandatory Overtime in the U.S. Economy,” EPI Briefing Paper #120, January 2002). Of course, employers would prefer to keep their labor force working longer without having to pay a premium for overtime hours.

Everybody involved realized that the primary convenience that the commission had in mind was that of the employers. While some exceptional employers might possibly use the new regulation to allow employees to schedule a more convenient work pattern, the basic thrust of the law would allow employers to reschedule work according to changing business needs. For example, if business slackens on a particular day, the employer could send the worker home early. If business picks up the next day, the employer could demand that the worker stay a few extra hours without any obligation to pay overtime.

Soon thereafter, the election of a Democratic governor meant that the new rule would not go into effect at the time. Undeterred, in 2002, after the Republicans won the U.S. Senate, they announced their intention to rewrite the federal overtime law along the lines that the California Republicans did, but then the government went further. The Department of Labor issued regulations that eliminated overtime protection for an estimated eight million workers.  To add insult to injury, the department then issued a report offering tips on how employers could avoid having to pay overtime (Leigh Strope, “Bush’s Labor Department Offers Employers Tips to Avoid Overtime Pay,” Associated Press, 6 January 2004).

Overtime is a contentious issue for workers. Dissatisfaction with mandatory overtime is widespread, but far from universal. Many workers depend on the higher wages that overtime brings. Some need the overtime just to get by; others depend on overtime to enjoy a better lifestyle. Sometimes, this dependence seems to verge on the irrational. For example, the Wall Street Journal profiled a Chrysler auto worker, Bill Cecil, who, by working an average of 40 hours per week in overtime, earned $101,000 in 1995. Mr. Cecil said that the extra pay allowed him to live comfortably, although the extra hours also led to his divorce (Aaron Lucchetti, “Overdrive: An Auto Worker Earns More Than $100,000, But at a Personal Cost — Working as Many as 84 Hours A Week, He Can Afford Lobster, New Golf Clubs — After Long Shifts, a Divorce,” 1 August 1996: A1). The paper covered Mr. Cecil because his choice was so unusual. Few workers would want to live the life he has chosen.

Many workers do not have the option of working overtime because the time demands outside of work are too great. Eileen Appelbaum, a researcher who has devoted considerable attention to making workplaces more efficient for both workers and their employers, published a Mother’s Day opinion piece in several newspapers discussing the growing time demands on workers. She observed:

In 1979, middle-class married couples with children worked for pay just under 3,300 hours a year on average. . . . Today, as women’s employment has increased, 60 percent of married couples both work. Seventy-two percent of women with children younger than 18, and 65 percent of those with children younger than 6, are in the work force. . . . This is roughly equivalent to one full-time and one part-time job. In 2000, the latest year for which data are available, middle-class married couples with children were employed 3,932 hours a year. That is an increase of 650 hours, or 16 weeks, of work a year. It means that middle-class married couples with kids are working the equivalent of two full-time jobs. (Appelbaum, “Flexibility Pays,” 12 May 2002)

The majority of working mothers with children under age six work more than 30 hours per week. The time demands take a toll on the family. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported:

Compared with children of nonworking mothers, children of full-time working mothers have lower overall HEI (Healthy Eating Index) scores, lower intake of iron and fiber, and higher intake of soda and fried potatoes, even after taking into account differences in maternal and other family characteristics. . . . Working mothers participate less in meal planning, shopping, and food preparation. The children of working mothers are more likely to skip morning meals, rely more on away-from-home food sources, spend more time watching TV and videos, and face significantly greater risk of overweight. (Mary Kay Crepinsek, Nancy R. Burstein, and Linda M. Ghelfi, Maternal Employment and Children’s Nutrition, “Volume I, Diet Quality and the Role of the CACFP” and “Volume II, Other Nutrition-Related Outcomes,” June 2004)

For many of working mothers, obtaining childcare requires imposing on friends and family (Heather Boushey, “Who Cares? The Child Care Choices of Working Mothers,” Center for Economic and Policy Analysis Data Brief No. 1, 6 May 2003). Far too often, single mothers with young children have no one to whom to turn for childcare. From time to time, these unattended children get hurt or even die while their mother works. On the heels of this personal tragedy, prosecutors often charge such mothers with reckless endangerment — or even worse. For low-income mothers without access to cheap childcare, the alternative would be to spend a very large portion of their salary for childcare, leaving them with insufficient income to survive.

Parenthetically, in 2003, the Senate Finance Committee following the wishes of the Bush administration voted down an amendment to the bill renewing welfare reform that would have added $11.25 billion in child care money over five years for women coming off welfare. Senator Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, waxed philosophical in speaking against offering assistance for childcare: “Making people struggle a little bit is not necessarily the worst thing” (Elizabeth Shogren, “Tighter Rules Likely for Welfare Families: A Senate Panel Approves a Bill That Would Force More Recipients to Find Jobs, Work Longer Hours,” Los Angeles Times, 11 September 2003: A18).

To make matters worse, the workplace demands often continue even after working hours. Job-related activities are also taking up more and more time, especially when workers remain connected to the job with cell phones, fax machines, and e-mail. Commuting probably represents the greatest demand on workers’ free time in the United States, especially because many people cope with the rising prices of housing by living far from their workplace. Traffic congestion makes the trip even longer. The average commute time is more than an hour in cities where the population exceeds one million people. Even in cities of less than 100,000 the average commute time is more than 40 minutes (Edward L. Glaeser, “Are Cities Dying?” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 12.2, Spring 1998, p. 151). The situation grows worse each year. For example, in 1999, the average Atlanta resident lost 53 hours to traffic delays, compared with only 25 hours as recently as 1992 (Paul Krugman, “Nation in a Jam,” New York Times, 13 May 2001).

Personal responsibilities make workers’ lives even more complicated. With people living longer and medical insurance increasingly scarce, many married families strain under the burden of caring for their children and parents while each partner works two full time jobs. Recall that two-thirds of mothers with children under age six are employed and, of these, the majority work more than 30 hours per week (Boushey, 6 May 2003).

Given the rapid increase in the demands on individuals, flexible work schedules become more valuable for workers with passing each day — if those schedules adjust to the workers’ own needs, but today flexibility mostly means that workers must adjust their schedules to the employers’ needs. Especially for a two-job family, juggling family responsibilities with work is difficult enough, even with a relatively stable work schedule.

More and more, the presumption that most jobs would be 8 A.M to 5 P.M. has become obsolete. In 1997, less than 30 percent of all workers in the United States worked 35-40 hours per week, Monday through Friday on a fixed schedule according to a government survey (Harriet B. Presser, “Toward a 24-Hour Economy,” Science, 284.5421, 11 June 1999, p. 1778). No wonder that households report that they had just 19.8 hours left each week for relaxation, sports, hobbies, entertainment, and socializing in 1999, compared to 26.2 hours in 1973 (Gary Burtless, “Squeezed for Time? American Inequality and the Shortage of Leisure” Brookings Review, Fall 1999, p. 19).

When flexibility becomes the exclusive prerogative of the employer, job demands can become incompatible with workers’ other personal responsibilities. I get some idea of the extent of this problem with my students whose employers frequently demand that they shift their work hours with very little notice. Without advance knowledge of their schedules, workers have to expend considerable time, energy, and money to be able to balance their shifting work demands with family and personal responsibilities. They have to make on-the-spot arrangements for someone else to pick their children up at school or take a parent to the doctor. Such is the reality of our modern version of individualism in which commerce triumphs over all else!

Unexpected scheduling demands take an even more serious toll on family life. Not surprisingly, studies indicate that divorce and separation are more common among people working non-standard 8-5 jobs (Presser 2000). Ironically, many of the same conservative politicians who speak so earnestly about their deep dedication to family values applaud proposals to increase employers’ flexibility as progressive policy — even though granting employers such flexibility is certain to disrupt the family lives of many employees.

Employers would even like to have workers’ hours adjust to the fluctuating needs of their business. For example, some people must work split shifts, for example one shift in the early morning and another in the afternoon. In some rare cases, as with school bus drivers, split shifts are understandable. Split shift work, where employers expect people to report for work for two periods during the day, separated by unpaid time, to accommodate the peak demand periods, is becoming more common. This sort of employer flexibility is liable to abuse.

Now, take a moment to think about the nature of the time demands of the market economy. Modern technology should be lightening workers’ burdens, not extending the hours of work, especially in the contemporary United States, where many of the most labor-intensive products come from sweatshops in poor nations. In fact, manufacturing employment is quickly disappearing from the United States. In addition, few people in the United States, still work in agriculture. Increasingly, people in modern economies work within what people once called the new economy. The time required to produce the essentials of a high standard of living is rapidly shrinking. Even so, work demands are increasing. What is going on?

The market now devotes more and more work for purely commercial reasons — advertising, marketing, extraneous packaging, financial manipulation, and bureaucratic bloat — none of which makes the typical citizen better off. These commercially oriented activities occupy an increasing part of the labor force. By minimizing such wasteful activities and concentrating on useful work, people could enjoy considerably more flexibility without any negative impact on their standard of living (see Michael Perelman, Transcending the Economy: On the Potential of Passionate Labor and the Wastes of the Market, 2000).


Michael Perelman is professor of economics at California State University at Chico, and the author of fifteen books, including Steal This Idea: Intellectual Property Rights and the Corporate Confiscation of Creativity and The Perverse Economy: The Impact of Markets on People and the Environment. His forthcoming books include Railroading Economics: The Creation of the Free Market Mythology (Monthly Review Press). The above essay was adapted from Manufacturing Discontent: The Trap of Individualism in Corporate Society, just published by Pluto Press.


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