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Home Publications Briefings/Testimony Perspectives on Work/Family Balance and the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Laws

Perspectives on Work/Family Balance and the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Laws

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April 17, 2007, Testimony of Heather Boushey before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Thank you Madam Chair, Madam Vice-Chair, and Commissioners Ishimaru and Griffin for providing me with the opportunity to speak to you today.

My name is Heather Boushey and I am a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, DC. My area of expertise is the U.S. labor market, with an emphasis on the interconnections between labor and social policy and work/life balance.

My task today is to provide you with an overview of the realities facing women today as they strive to balance their jobs with their family life. I want to start with several important findings:

Women—and mothers—are in the labor force to stay. There's no evidence that women—neither professional women nor the other 90-some percent of working mothers—are increasingly leaving the labor market to be full-time caretakers. In 2005, the last year for which we have data on mothers, among prime-age women (aged 25 to 45), 75 percent of women and 71 percent of mothers were in the labor force.1

Most families simply cannot afford to have a full-time caretaker at home. Women work because their families need their income. The typical working wife brings home over a third of her family’s total income (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2005) and single mothers often do not receive child support and must support themselves. Many women also work because they need benefits for themselves and their families, such as health insurance coverage or retirement benefits. While their work is essential to their family well-being, the cost of a full-time nanny or home health aide for ailing parents is out of reach for most. Therefore, they must rely on parental care (tag-team parenting with their spouse), relative care, or daycare, which requires that they reconcile their work schedules with the often rigid schedules of caregivers. Most families can neither afford to have a stay-at-home-mother, nor a full-time nanny who can help families cope with fluctuating work schedules.

As a result, the overwhelming majority of children do not have a full-time caretaker at home and so families must find a way to create work/life balance. Two-thirds of families with children have all available parents at work: in 62 percent of married-couple families, both parents work, and in 71 percent single-mother families and 83 percent of single-father families, the parent works (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2006). Parents—mothers and fathers—now typically both work and provide care, and many workers also provide care for elderly parents.

Yet, many—if not most—U.S. workplaces continue to act as if their workers have a full-time spouse at home to provide care. Achieving work/life balance is not a problem for just a few U.S. workers but, rather, is the norm for the majority of the U.S. workforce. Workers across a multitude of demographic dimensions—age, race, ethnicity, marital status, income, educational attainment, and kind of job—face work/life issues. Yet, the majority of the U.S. workforce reports having little or no flexibility in setting their hours and nearly two-thirds report not having paid sick days to cover their time if a family member is ill.

These issues are not going away. While families have put in more hours of work, the U.S. economy has grown richer and more productive. Yet, we have not addressed how workers can reconcile the demands of work and family in a way that works for both families and employers. The implications for workers are clear: without the right to have time to care, workers, especially those at the bottom of the wage distribution, must regularly make a choice between their family and their job. This is not a real choice.

Policymakers and employers do have some real choices. If all firms were required to allow workers the option of asking for a flexible schedule, modeled on the U.K.’s legislation, then it would not be the exceptional employer who provides flexibility. If all firms were required to offer paid sick days and extended leave for health or maternity, then it would not be the exception firms who were taking on the cost of accommodating workers who have care responsibilities. The workplace must begin to recognize that workers with care responsibilities are no longer the exception.

Mom works—and it doesn’t seem like she’s headed home

Most children in the United States now live in families where they have no stay-at-home parent, a dramatic transformation from just a generation ago (Council of Economic Advisors 1999). Two-thirds of families have all available parents in the labor force. Three-quarters of employed mothers of children under age six worked 30 hours per week or more—and nearly this entire group—over 90 percent—reported using some kind of child care (Boushey and Wright 2004).

Figure 1 shows the employment rates for women, by marital status and presence of children in their family, and for men. In the 1980s, the sharpest increase in labor force participation occurred among married women with children. However, in the 1990s, single women with children had the sharpest increase in employment—so much so that by the early 2000s, their employment rates are almost equal to those of single women without children.

Figure 1Over the 1980s, the increase in employment among married mothers was driven by the wives of middle- and high-wage men moving into the labor force (Juhn and Murphy 1996). Over the 1990s, however, women entering the labor force were largely low-skilled single heads of household (Blau and Kahn 2004).

Women’s employment patterns now respond less to their husband’s patterns and more to their own employment and wage opportunities, compared to a generation ago. We can see this by looking at what economists call the effect of own-wage and cross-effects on women’s employment rates. Here, own-wage effects are changes in employment patterns caused by changes in women’s own wages and cross-effects are changes attributable to husband’s wages. Juhn and Murphy (1996) found that over the 1970s and 1980s, own-wage effects dominated cross-effects, meaning that changes in women’s wages, not changes in husband’s wages, pushed women into the labor market over those decades. More recently, Blau and Kahn (2005) found that, continuing past trends, women’s labor supply continued to become less responsive to their husband’s wages between 1980 and 2000, and more responsive to own-wage effects. Thus, over the past few decades, women’s employment patterns have increasingly followed changes in women’s wages so that as women earn more, they work more, regardless of their husband’s earnings.

As a result of increased labor force participation and increased responsiveness to women’s wage gains, over the past few decades, women’s employment patterns have begun to look more and more like men’s. Increasingly, women work regardless of their status as wives or mothers (Blau and Kahn 2005; Boushey forthcoming; Juhn and Murphy 1996). These trends are likely to continue because young women are acting as though they intend to work in the paid labor market and continue to make significant investments in their work skills, so much so that women now outnumber men on college campuses.

Since the recession of the early 2000s, mother’s labor supply has fallen. However, non-mothers—women without children, as well as men—have also seen their employment rates decline. Research shows that children are not pulling women back into the home. Boushey (forthcoming) finds that there is no evidence of an increase in the effect of children on the employment rates of professional women, nor is it the case that children are causing more women to choose part-time employment. Rather, the recession of 2001 affected women’s employment more so than in prior recessions, which may be behind the recent decline in mother’s employment (Boushey, Rosnick, and Baker 2005).

Women’s employment patterns continue to take a parallel path to men’s. Labor force participation and employment rates for all groups of workers have taken an exceptionally long time to recover from the most recent recession and, while women’s employment is now finally at its pre-recession peak, men’s employment remains below where it was in 2000.

Why are mothers at work instead of at home?

Over the latter half of the twentieth century, there were many widespread changes in factors affecting both the supply of and demand for women workers that can explain the increase in women’s labor supply. Some argue that the introduction of the birth control pill and, more importantly, its increased availability for single women, led women to greater investments in their own careers (Goldin and Katz 2002). Others point to changes in legislation that put cracks in the glass ceiling and made it possible for women to enter—and excel—in a wider array of occupations. At the same time, labor demand has increased in typically female occupations, such as clerical and service workers, which may have pulled women into employment (Jacobsen 1999).

But, the increased prevalence of working mothers is not all about women’s opportunities to choose employment. For millions of mothers, getting a job provides necessary income and economic security for their families. Wives’ earnings are important for family economic security in the short-term and the long-term. Married mothers generally still do not earn as much as their husbands—although a third of wives do earn more than their husbands—but they bring home an average of over a third of the family’s income (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2005).

For many families, having a working wife can make the difference between being middle class and not. When we look across the income distribution, families in the higher income brackets are more likely to have a working wife and she puts in more hours than less-well off families. In recent decades, the families that were upwardly mobile were those who had a working wife: recent research by economists at the Boston Federal Reserve shows that over the 1980s and 1990s (Bradbury and Katz 2004), the families that moved up the income ladder were those who had a working wife. The shift in women’s work participation is not simply about women wanting to work, but it is also about their families needing them to work.

Even though families are working more, their incomes have failed to grow as much as they did in the decades after World War II. Figure 2 shows the growth in median family income for married-couple families from 1947 through 2005, indexed to 1949. (The trends are similar from 1974 to the present for married-couple families with and without children, but the Census provides data back to 1947 for married-couple families without children, so we use this here for comparison.) The dotted line shows growth in income among families where the wife does not work and the solid line shows growth in income among families where the wife does work. The trend line shows what the growth in married-couple family income would have been had it remained at its 1947 to 1973 rate of growth.

Figure 2

Prior to about 1973, married-couple family income grew by three percent per year on average and income growth was about the same for families with and without a working wife. However, after the early 1970s, family income growth comes to a virtual halt for families without a working wife, and slowed considerably for families with a working wife. After 1973, married-couple families without a working wife saw their income grow at an annual average rate of just 0.1 percent, while married-couple families with a working wife saw annual average income growth of less than one percent. Thus, even though families are working harder, they are seeing income growth that pales in comparison to the decades prior to 1973.

While income growth slowed for all families, low-income families have especially need wives’ economic contributions as this made the difference between falling and slightly rising incomes. Figure 3 shows that if wives had not increased their employment rates, families across the income distribution would have seen much slower income growth and families at the bottom would have seen their incomes fall (Mishel, Bernstein, and Allegretto 2005).

Figure 3

Low-income, single mothers don’t have a choice whether to work or not, that is, if they want to feed their families. A decade ago, welfare reform challenged low-income single mothers to find jobs. Over the next few years, the employment rate of single mothers rose sharply, from 71 percent in 1991 to 82 percent in 2000. Research has concluded that welfare reform accounts for about one-third of the employment gains of former welfare recipients and the strong economy of the late 1990s accounts for another third (Blank 2002). Now, not only are single mothers as likely to work as married mothers, but they typically work more hours. Even so, the typical, unmarried mother teeters on the edge of poverty, pulling in barely enough to make ends meet. On top of this, service sector workers (mostly low-wage women) are not as likely as other workers to have paid health insurance or paid leave.

Women and their families recognize that to work or not isn’t simply about today’s income, it’s about benefits and long-term income potential. It’s also about economic security for women who understand that their chance of divorce is high and they may need to support themselves someday. Dropping out of employment—even for just a year or two—has a long-term effect on women’s wages. One study estimates that for every two years out of the labor force, a woman’s earnings fall by 11 percent and this “mommy penalty” does not go away once the kids are grown; earnings are lower for the rest of a woman’s worklife (Budig and England 2001).

Increasingly, U.S. workers work not just for income, but also for benefits, which are increasingly based on individual work participation. Each year, employers are asking employees to pay (or pay more) to have other family members on their health insurance plan, making it more expensive for wives to stay at home and not find a job that offers them their own health insurance (Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured 2000). Working for retirement benefits has also taken on increased importance because the now-common defined contribution retirement plans, such as 401(k)s, are based only on a working person’s contributions.

If everyone’s at work, who’s providing care?

As a result of more women working, the typical two-parent, middle-class family now has a husband working full-time and a wife working about three-quarter’s time (Figure 4). A generation ago, the typical family had a husband working full-time and a wife working less than part-time. Among married-couple families with an adult aged 25 to 54 with children, the combined annual hours of work increased by 18 percent between 1979 and 2004. This is the equivalent of every family putting in an additional 13.5 weeks of full-time work per year (Mishel, Bernstein, and Allegretto 2007, Table 1.24). There are also more single-parent families than there were a generation ago, with one-in-six families headed by a single parent in 2005, compared to one-in-sixteen in 1964.

Figure 4

It would seem that more hours of work should translate directly into a loss of hours available for parenting. What’s remarkable, however, is that even though mothers work more, they haven’t reduced their hours of parenting. (Note that parenting is not the same as care.) Between 1985 and 2000, mothers spent an average of four more hours at a paid job and five more hours parenting. Mothers are spending less time on housework (an average of one less hour per week), less time volunteering and less time on themselves. Fathers also are spending more time with their children: while fathers spent two more hours at their job, they spent four more hours parenting (Bianchi, Robinson, and Milkie 2006).

Mothers initially may have been able to continue to provide as much care as they moved into employment, because men began to pick up some of the household chores. During the 1980s, the gender gap in housework closed as men increased their hours of housework. However, this tapered off during the 1990s so much so that by the end of the 1990s, men’s hours of housework had fallen below their 1970 level (Blau and Kahn 2004). By the 2000s, mothers were still likely to work the “second shift” on their own (Hochschild and Machung 2003).

Families come up with a diversity of strategies to find sources of care so that they can work, not all of which include paying for child care. Slightly less than one-third of mothers put their young children under age six in formal care. While formal care is generally of higher quality and is one of the most reliable forms of care, it is also the most expensive. Moderate and lower income families generally cannot afford it without assistance. Mothers who cannot rely on family support or afford formal care, must rely on informal child care arrangements (family daycare or nanny/sitters). These child care arrangements are of varying quality and are the least reliable, often forcing mothers to miss work (Fuller et al. 2001).

Mothers in lower-income households spend a much higher share of their total income on child care than do higher-income households. In 2002, mothers in the bottom 40th percentile or below, who paid for formal daycare, spent nearly one-fifth of their family total income on child care, compared to only 6 percent among mothers in the highest quintile (Boushey and Wright 2004). There are some government child care subsidies available to low-income parents but research has found that many children eligible for child care subsidies do not receive them, with only about 15 percent of children eligible for federal child care assistance actually receiving any funds (Administration for Children and Families 1999). The United States spend less than one half of one percent of its budget on child care programs.

One-third of mothers rely on relatives to provide care for their children. The high use of relatives to provide child care among poorer households and the low use among higher income households indicates that this kind of care may be more of necessity than choice. This may be in part a result of welfare reform, which pushed low-income mothers into paid employment. High reliance on relative child care may also be partially attributable to the fact that child care costs have risen faster than wages in recent years. However, relative care may not be a stable child care arrangement over time. Relatives often have to find regular employment themselves. It cannot be assumed that relative care will meet the child care needs of middle- and lower-income households.

Working mothers report parental care to be the most common kind of care for their pre-school children, especially among lower-income households. Married mothers who report parental care as the most common kind of child care are much more likely to tag-team parent with their spouse, working alternating schedules so that one parent watches the children while the other one works. Tag-team parenting may limit spouses’ ability to spend time together as a family and cause problems within the family (Hochschild 1997; Hochschild and Machung 2003; Grosswald 2004), but may solve the problem of finding adequate and affordable child care.

While the decision to tag-team parent could be one of choice or necessity, the evidence suggests that it is driven primarily by necessity. The probability that couples work overlapping hours—that is, they are at work at the same time and home at the same time—increases sharply with income, supporting the view that couples with more income can effectively buy more time together by making other child care arrangements for the hours when both are working. When high-income families tag-team parent, they do so by having one parent work fewer hours than the other, rather than having both parents working similar hours on alternating schedules, which is more common among lower-income couples. A similar pattern holds for education levels, with more educated couples typically having work schedules that more closely coincide, compared to couples with less education. Lower income families simply cannot afford to buy formal child care and may not have other options available (e.g. care by friends or relatives) (Boushey 2006).

Parents who work alternating schedules tend to use parental care as the primary type of child care. Lower-income families are more likely to have alternating schedules, even once we account for their use of parental care and their statement that their schedule is to have “better child care arrangements.” This implies that tag-team parenting is a strategy to address the high costs of child care.

Nannies are the least common kind of child care, used by less than one-in-ten working mothers and are an option typically used only by the wealthiest families (Boushey and Wright 2004).

But, it’s not just young children who need care. The U.S. is an aging nation and increasingly, families are part of the sandwich generation—with children at home and elderly, ailing parents needing care. Elder care is often just as, if not more expensive, than child care. An indication of the growing importance of elder care is that over the next ten years, home health aides are projected to be the fastest growing occupation in the United States, increasing by over 50 percent (Hecker 2005).

Finding adequate care for children and other family members is often made more daunting by the inflexibility of the workplace. For professional workers, the problem is often long hours and employer’s demands to work late hours (Stone and Lovejoy 2004). For professional mothers, the issue is often that there are not part-time or flexible jobs available in their organization, or their field. If they are able to cut back, they often report being “mommy tracked,” and unable to progress alongside their male colleagues. However, these mothers also have the advantage of being able to purchase higher quality, and often more flexible, carearrangements fortheir children because they can afford to hire nannies.

For low-wage workers, the problems often take the form of too-few hours or highly variable schedules. Lambert and Henly (2007) have been doing intensive research interviewing low-wage workers and found that employers in sectors like retail trade or hotels, which disproportionately hire women, often do not post schedules more than a few days in advance and hours can vary greatly from week-to-week. For someone trying to arrange child care, this can pose significant challenges. Child care facilities often require payment for a set schedule regardless of whether the child is actually in care and may not be able to adjust their availability to provide care on very short notice.

Which matters more to you—your job or your family?

As women now generally work outside the home, few workers have the luxury of a stay-at-home spouse or family member to take care of household chores, the children, or the sick or the elderly. Yet, employers still often act as though workers do have a spouse at home to deal with emergencies or to cope with home responsibilities if the worker is required to work a longer shift than expected. Worker/caregivers need both access to care substitutes, such as enriching and affordable daycare and home health aides to check in on sick or elderly family members, as well as jobs that provide both the flexibility to be away from work at times as well as schedules that are consistent with finding care substitutes.

Most U.S. workers do not have the right to take paid leave for anticipated or unanticipated reasons. Since 1993, over half of U.S. workers have had access to anticipated, unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. FMLA provides up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to workers when they have a new child or they or a family member has a serious illness. Yet, because this leave is unpaid, many who need it cannot afford to take it. Among those who needed leave, but did not take it, nearly two-thirds reported that the reason was that they could not afford to take unpaid leave (Commission on Leave 1996).2 Studies show that highly-benefits, compared to 66.7 percent of fathers. Women were more likely than men (37.5 percent compared to 29.6 percent) to have received no pay during their longest leave (Waldfogel 2001). Studies show that highly-educated women are more likely than less-educated women to have paid maternity leave and that this significantly affects their probability of returning to their employer after their child is born (Boushey forthcoming 2008).

Workers with care responsibilities also need time off for unanticipated events, like a sick child or a parent-teacher conference. In 2006, the last year for which data are available, just over half (57 percent) of private sector workers had access to paid sick leave, about the same as had it in 1979 (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2006). Higher paid workers are more likely to have paid sick days. In 1999, 38 percent of blue-collar and service employees had access to paid sick leave, compared to 81 percent of professional and technical employees and 59 percent clerical and sales employees (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2001). Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of workers (both full-time and part-time) do not have access to paid sick leave to care for a sick child (Lovell 2004). The share of employees without paid sick leave for themselves or a child’s illness rises to 84 percent in construction and non-durable manufacturing and 94 percent in accommodations and food services, an industry that disproportionately employs women.

Access to paid leave is an issue that states and localities are taking on. In 2004, California became the first state to introduce paid family and medical leave and a handful states are currently considering similar legislation. As of November 2006, workers in San Francisco have the right to paid sick days, a right held by workers in all other OECD nations (Heymann et al. 2004). In 2004, Senator Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. DeLauro (D-CT) introduced a bill that would provide seven days of paid sick leave to every American worker. This bill would guarantee paid leave for an employee’s medical condition, doctor’s appointment or other preventative care or for the employee to care for a family member with comparable needs.

Workplace flexibility is another option to help families balance care and work. Employees in a flexible workplace may be able to set their starting and ending hours of work, they might be able to determine when to take a break, or have the ability to leave work for a short period of time and make up the hours later. Providing flexibility does not necessarily cost employers money, but it does require that they allow employees to make some decisions about the workplace. About a quarter of employees report that they have some kind of flexibility (Galinsky, Bond, and Hill 2004, p. 5), while a much larger share of employers, anywhere from about half to most report offering some kind of flexibility (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2002).3

Workplace flexibility is a perk more often offered to professional or salary workers, and categorically denied to less-skilled or hourly employees. As the labor market tightened over the late 1990s, access to workplace flexibility increased, although not by a great deal, especially for highly-sought after professionals (Galinsky, Bond, and Hill 2004). In general, workers who hold higher positions and are privileged in general (better educated, white, male) have more access to all kinds of workplace flexibility. Women are less likely than men to have access to flexibility but parents—especially single mothers—are not more likely to have access to workplace flexibility (Golden 2001; Golden and Wiens-Tuers 2006; McCrate 2005). In fact, parents are more likely to have nonstandard shifts and rotating hours, making work/family balance more difficult to achieve (Boushey 2006; Presser 2003).

Even if respondents report that they have a workplace flexibility policy, this does not necessarily mean that they feel that they can take advantage of it. Many workers are likely to report that their employer has a flexible workplace policy, but in actuality they either cannot use it or they are afraid to ask for it, for fear of repercussions. Eaton (2001), for example, demonstrates the functional difference between the existence and “usability” of workplace flexibility. Other research has documented that usage of workplace flexibility policies is either actively discouraged or have negative career consequences and creates the stunted career path of “mommy-track” jobs (Bailyn 1993; Williams 2000; Jurczyk 1998). The gap in usage versus existence of workplace flexibility policies may explain why employers are more likely to report that they offer workplace flexibility than are workers to report that they have access.

Workers are caregivers, too

No one can be two places at once. Families where all available adults are at work, as is the case in most families, cannot simultaneously provide care for children, the sick, or the elderly. Care and work are both necessary for families, and those that struggle daily to reconcile these two facets of their lives report that it is difficult and stressful. We cannot continue to rely on private solutions to work/life problems. There are policies that can help families address their need for care, such as child care or paid time off, but critically, workers need Congress’s help to make workplaces adapt. Most full-time workers do not have a full-time caregiver at home. Increasingly, workers need workplaces that are flexible, that recognize that workers often have complicated care routines. Workers also need stability; they need stable work schedules, where they have access to paid time off for the unexpected that comes along with caring for themselves and their families.

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Williams, Joan. 2000. Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to do About It. New York: Oxford University Press.


1 Author’s calculations from the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement 2006.

2 In 2000, 62.3 percent of men and 61.2 percent of women were both covered and eligible for FMLA (Cantor et al. 2001). Overall, the extent of leave under FMLA is quite small: in 2000, only 1.9 percent of employees took leave under FMLA, up from 1.2 percent in 1995 (Waldfogel 2001).

3 See Golden (2003) for a review of employer surveys.
Heather Boushey is a Senior Economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
 

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