Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

How to Get Work-Life Balance

July 31st, 2009 | Amy Traub

Workers are parents. Workers are caregivers for their elderly and disabled adult loved ones. And yes, workers get sick sometimes and have to stop working and take care of themselves. The question is when our workplaces are going to acknowledge these all-too-obvious facts and provide basic benefits that let working people handle their non-work lives without going broke.

The answer, of course, is that we get what’s known as “work-life balance” or “family-friendly” benefits – like paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, and child care benefits – when we oblige employers to give them to us. Employees with in-demand skills do that now, and the good news is, employers are generally not scaling back workplace flexibility policies during this recession. (See this new study from the Families and Work Institute for the first piece of good employment news I’ve read in a while.)

But what about the rest of us? We’ve got two complementary and mutually reinforcing ways to make sure the boss lets Daddy stay home with Sally when she gets the flu. The first is government regulation: in recent weeks, I’ve made the case that the nation should set up a national system of paid family leave insurance and mandate that employers provide paid sick days.

The second way to ensure that our work lives give ground when necessary to the exigencies of the rest of our lives is to organize a union and put family-friendly benefits on the bargaining table. A recent report by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education and the Labor Project for Working Families highlights the effectiveness of this approach. Among the findings:

* Union workers are more likely to receive fully paid and partially paid family leaves than their non-union counterparts.

* Union workers are more likely to have paid sick days, and to have paid time off they can use to care for sick children.

* Union workers are more likely to have child care benefits, from referral services to dependent care reimbursement accounts.

* Companies with a unionized workforce are five times more likely to pay the entire family health insurance premium, and when union employees do have to pay part of the premium themselves, they are responsible for a smaller share.

* Unions can even increase access to benefits that are mandated by law for a much wider range of workers. For example, although the federal Family Medical Leave Act has guaranteed unpaid, job-protected leave for many workers at large companies for over 15 years, surveys suggest that many employees still don’t realize they have this right. Others are too afraid to use the leave they’re entitled to. But, as the report explains, unions “educate members on what their workplace rights are and how to exercise them; they monitor the workplace and ensure that policies and rights are being enforced; and they protect workers from retaliation when they exercise their rights.”

As the last example suggests, unionization and government action complement each other, with public policy granting protection to a broader range of working people, and unions increasing the ability of their members to fully exercise the rights they’re given by the law. More of us will get more balance in our work and lives if the nation pursues both routes aggressively: make it easier to join unions while also fighting for paid leave and other “balance” policies for everyone. Since unions themselves are among the most dedicated advocates of regulations providing family-friendly benefits for all employees, these strategies are also mutually reinforcing.

Amy Traub: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. She received a graduate fellowship to study political science at Columbia University, where she earned her Masters degree in 2001 and completed coursework towards a Ph.D. Her studies focused on comparative political economy, political theory, and social movements. Funded by a field research grant from the Tinker Foundation, Amy conducted original research in Mexico City, exploring the development of the Mexican student movement. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers. She has also been active on the local political scene working with progressive elected officials. Amy resides in Manhattan Valley with her husband.

This article originally appeared at DMI Blog and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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