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Home Publications Op-Eds & Columns It Doesn't Hurt to Ask: Flexible Hours on the Job

It Doesn't Hurt to Ask: Flexible Hours on the Job

Dean Baker
Truthout, November 26, 2007

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Suppose you need a few hours off from work to take your kids to the doctor, visit with their teacher, or maybe to see a school play. Most of us would ask our boss, and most of us probably would be able to get the time, as long as we agreed to make up the work.

While more educated workers typically have jobs where they have some sick leave or flextime, so that they can take care of essential family tasks, workers in lower-paying jobs often don't have this luxury. One-fifth of the workforce, roughly 30 million workers, are employed at jobs at which they have no guarantee of any time off from their job or any guarantee of flexibility in hours from their boss. In fact, these workers do not even have the right to ask for time off from their boss. Under current labor law, an employer has the legal right to fire a worker simply for asking for time off.

This could change. Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Carolyn Maloney intend to introduce legislation that would give workers the right to ask their boss for flexibility in their work schedule to accommodate family needs, without fear of retaliation. The boss would not be obligated to grant the request, but he or she would be required to give an explanation, based on the needs of the business, as to why they are turning down the request.

The requirements this measure would impose on bosses is very limited since there is no appeal process created for the worker if they don't consider the explanation legitimate. A boss can make up an excuse that doesn't hold up under scrutiny; in fact, the boss can say no because the sun comes up in the east, and the worker still has no recourse. The measure would not give them the right to have flexibility on the job.

Still, the measure would give workers a sense of security they don't currently have. They can at least ask their boss for the time to tend to important commitments without worrying they will lose their job. And, they may be able to shame their boss into granting a request when there is no legitimate reason to deny it. This may seem like a small benefit to those of us who can't imagine having to choose between losing a job and caring for their children, but it undoubtedly would make a big difference for workers who face this reality.

Opponents of a "right to ask" bill will argue this is just a first step - that the next step will be mandated family leave or flextime arrangements. They are right. Many people will insist the United States can provide workers with the same sort of flexibilities to accommodate family needs that are written into law in Canada, Australia, Germany and every other wealthy country in the world. These countries have guaranteed their workers paid time off for decades, and most of them continued to have healthy growth and low rates of unemployment.

In fact, we don't even have to leave the country to find examples of workplaces that accommodate their employees' family needs. Millions of businesses right here in the United States provide paid vacation time, sick leave and even flexible work schedules. The overwhelming majority of these businesses are profitable and growing. But this still leaves millions of businesses that refuse to provide workers any paid time off from their job or flexibility in their work schedule.

The Kennedy-Maloney bill will force a minority of irresponsible businesses to act responsibly. It is a first step toward guaranteeing all workers time for dealing with important family matters. For the tens of millions of workers affected, this would be a big deal.

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer (www.conservativenannystate.org). He also has a blog, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues. You can find it at the American Prospect's web site.


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