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Private Solutions: What if Employers Put Women at the Center of Their Workplace Policies?

When Businesses Design Workplaces that Support their Employees, Both the Businesses and the Employees Benefit

By Ellen Galinsky, James T. Bond and Eve Tahmincioglu 

THE NEED FOR CHILD CARE—THE STORY OF LUCIA HERRERA

Lucia Herrera is a 30-year-old mother of three children, with a preschooler in a Head Start program and 2-year-old twins.1 She works four days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. as a family support worker at a New York City charity. This requires her to make home visits to families in the South Bronx to help them with their problems. She lives with her fiancé, but with a salary of only $28,000 a year, making ends meet has been tough.

“My fiancé just started working recently,” Lucia said. “He couldn’t find a job for a long while, and everything was on my shoulders. Now things are finally looking up for him.”

One of Lucia’s biggest expenditures is child care. She has the twins in a private center that costs $300 a week. Because her job entails helping low-income families receive publicly funded supports, such as food and clothing, she understands how to navigate the complex legal requirements for receiving child care assistance. Even so, it was a battle for her to get the subsidy she was entitled to for her own children.

In 2012, the cost of childcare in the U.S. grew up to eight times faster than family income.
A Woman's Nation Pushes Back From The Brink

“After a lot of fighting and arguing, I finally received a subsidy to help me pay for daycare,” she said. “I was wrongfully denied the benefit. It started one week ago. I got fortunate! I have an amazing daycare provider who is fully aware of my circumstances. She’s been working with me.”

The impact of this seven-month battle is that Lucia owes a lot of money to her child care provider. Among all low-income employed women with children, the cost of child care is problematic. According to the National Study of the Changing Workforce, one-third (34 percent) of those surveyed say that it is “very difficult” to pay for child care. The inability to afford child care is also a major reason low-income women are unable to increase their hours. It is a catch-22 when working more hours to earn more money may not, in fact, cover the cost of the additional child care needed to take on more hours.2

IT’S NO WONDER LOW-INCOME EMPLOYEES EXPERIENCE HIGH LEVELS OF STRESS

Given the findings about the kinds of lives that low-income employees lead, how are they faring? The answer: not nearly as well as middle- and high-income employees, as Table 1 reveals. According to the National Study of the Changing Workforce,low-income employees are more likely to have:

Poorer health: Despite their generally younger age, 27 percent of the low-income workforce report poor or fair health versus only 15 percent of the high-income workforce.

Higher stress: More than three times as many low-income employees experience high levels of stress (38 percent) as high-income employees (12 percent). Only 14 percent of low-income employees have low levels of stress.

More depression: In response to questions from a widely used standardized screening scale for depression used by the NSCW, 23 percent of low-income employees exhibit two of the three indicators of depression, compared with 10 percent of high-income employees.

Poorer mental health overall: According to a general measure of mental health, 40 percent of low-income employees rank in the poor category, more than twice the percentage of high-income employees (17 percent).

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LOW-INCOME WOMEN LEAD PARTICULARLY STRESSFUL LIVES

Part-time security guard and student Sofia Lopez began to see her problems pile up.4  Her elderly father’s diabetes required eye surgeries, while her daughter’s surgery required substantial aftercare. The excessive demands that this family care placed upon her limited time and financial resources, as well as pressures at work to act as though none of this was happening, began to make Sofia feel sick, leading to her own trips to the doctor.

“The stress had become so overwhelming recently that the doctor thought I had a mild stroke,” she explained. “They did a lot of testing and in the end decided it was an anxiety attack.”

Similarly, Lucia Herrera—the mother of three whose job entails making home visits to families in the Bronx—is experiencing the negative impact of mounting pressures at home and at work.

“My stress level is very high,” she said. “I have to go to therapy to help me handle stuff.”5

Stress is more of a problem for low-income women than men: 42 percent of low-income women experience high levels of stress compared with 22 percent of men.6 And stress can initiate a vicious cycle. Because Sofia Lopez’s doctor suspected she had a mild stroke, she had to take time off from her job as a hotel security guard because the doctor wouldn’t allow her to go back to work. When she returned to work, they had changed her shift to 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., affecting her ability to continue to go to school.

She explained her dilemma to her manager, saying that she wanted to better herself and stay in school, but to no avail.

“My manager said, ‘It must be nice for other people to better themselves, but this is a job. Either you do it or not!’”7

Like many others, Sofia is also caught in another catch-22. She is 49 years old and worries that time is passing her by. Her ultimate goal is to help victims of domestic violence, but she believes that to achieve her goal and gain financial stability, she has to stay in college. Yet if she stays in school, she worries she will lose the very job on which her current economic survival depends.

DOES IT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY?

Sofia was so passionate about trying to stay in school that she went to talk to her boss’s boss—a risk that could have easily backfired. She made her case to the director of the hotel, explaining she’d been there for several years and had done a good job.

His initial response wasn’t encouraging. According to Sofia, he said the hotel reserved the right to change her hours whenever they felt it was necessary.

But soon after, there was hope. Sofia recalled their conversation.

“Then he said, ‘But we should be able to figure out an alternative that meets our needs and allows you to meet your obligations.’” Within two hours, her supervisor had called her back. “He’s supposed to talk to me to see about giving me my old schedule back.”8

As is the case for all of the women highlighted, the workplace clearly can cause problems, or it can be part of the solution. Over the past two decades, Families and Work Institute has used data from its ongoing National Study of the Changing Workforce to identify the characteristics of jobs and workplaces that are most strongly linked to positive outcomes. But the outcomes aren’t just a benefit to employees such as Sofia, Stacey, Katie, and Lucia. These outcomes benefit employers as well. And while some of these characteristics, such as fringe benefits, involve expenditures, most do not. 9

HOW EFFECTIVE WORKPLACES CAN BENEFIT EVERYONE10

Fostering workplace improvement is not typically on the public agenda when it comes to helping low-income women achieve upward mobility and financial stability. But in an Effective Workplace, everyone wins—both the employee and the employer.

Table 2 summarizes all of the statistically significant relationships we found between our indicators of Effective Workplaces and various outcomes of interest to both employers and employees. All of the relationships were positive, and most reached statistical significance.

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When low-income employees work in more Effective Workplaces, they and their employers benefit in the following important ways:

• Employees are more satisfied with their jobs.

• They are more engaged and thus working harder to help their employers succeed.

• They are less likely to have problems at home that negatively affect their performance on the job, and vice versa.

• They are more committed to remaining with their employers.

• They are in better physical and mental health.11

When we compare the impact of Effective Workplaces on low-income women and men, the findings are quite similar for both, though somewhat more positive for women than men. It is also important to note that findings are similarly positive across the board for all employees, regardless of gender or economic status.12

Most of the characteristics of Effective Workplaces simply require different ways of behaving, not financial outlays. And taken together, they can yield meaningful results that improve the lives of employees as well as the fortunes of their employers. The only characteristic with unavoidable costs to employers is fringe benefits. However, even the cost of better fringe benefits may be more than offset by the benefits of having more engaged and productive employees as well as lower rates of employee turnover, as some well-known employers have discovered.

Costco is one such example. The national retailer covers almost all of its employees and contributes substantially to their health insurance and retirement plans; it has a much lower turnover rate and has higher sales with fewer employees by comparison with other retailers.13

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Efforts to foster Effective Workplaces should not just be on the public agenda—they should drive it. As our brief case histories of four women clearly demonstrate, access to health care, learning opportunities, supervisor support, and flexible work arrangements—key aspects of Effective Workplaces—can create the conditions necessary for good health, educational achievement, job advancement, upward mobility, and generally better outcomes for employees, employers, and society.

THE THRIVE INDEX:

Company policies to promote the success of low-wage women workers

Center for Poverty Research and Graduate School of Management, University of California, Davis14

What is the Thrive Index? It is a list of questions developed exclusively for The Shriver Report by researchers at UC Davis, based on a review of the extensive social science and management literature on the challenges faced by low-wage working women. Its purpose is to identify company policies and best practices that promote the success of these workers, creating a thriving workplace for employee and employer alike.

Our review covered quantitative, survey-based studies of workers; qualitative case studies of specific firms and industries; and many variations in between. Unlike many previous lists of family- or woman-friendly companies, this index is based on the specific challenges faced by women workers at the bottom of the economic ladder—workers who stay out of poverty only when factors in their own lives, their families, and their workplaces come together in a positive way.

For the identified challenges these women face, we developed questions corresponding to company policies that can most directly affect workers’ likelihood of successfully navigating these difficulties, continuing as productive members of the workforce, and enhancing outcomes for themselves, their families, and their employers. Whether you’re a manager or an HR director, a CEO or a small business owner, the goal is to answer “yes” to as many of the following questions as possible.

Adequate wages and benefits

    • Are part-time workers paid the same (per hour, including benefits) as full-time workers performing the same or similar tasks?
    • Are most part-time workers guaranteed a minimum number of hours per week? If not, are there ways they could be?
    • Are workers who remain on the job for a specified period of time eligible for a pay increase?
    • Are workers who remain on the job for a specified period of time eligible for paid sick leave for themselves or to care for a family member?
    • When job-skill demands or responsibilities increase, are wages adjusted upward?
    • Are workers paid for their entire scheduled shift, even if business is slow?
    • Are hourly wages higher for nonstandard shifts, such as nights or weekends?

Opportunities for learning and upward mobility

    • Do low-wage workers have opportunities for on-the-job or cross-task training or outside educational opportunities that can lead to upward mobility?
    • Can schedules accommodate workers’ pursuit of educational opportunities?
    • When skill demands or job responsibilities increase, is training provided for newly assigned tasks?
    • Can workers cross-train in different areas to increase their flexibility and value to the company (recognizing that outsourcing of some functional areas or other factors may prohibit this)?
    • Are there opportunities for upward mobility within the company that do not require geographic relocation?

Support for personal and family needs

    • Can worker breaks be scheduled to accommodate the need for phone calls at pre-specified times for working caregivers?
    • Are occasional calls for urgent matters allowable? Can children or caregivers call an employee at work when necessary?
    • Are workers who remain on the job for a specified period of time eligible during their regular work hours to care for their health or a family member’s without losing pay (e.g., able to leave for an hour or two for a trip to the doctor)?
    • Can personal time be taken in small increments of an hour or two (for doctor’s appointments, parent-teacher conferences, educational opportunities, etc.)
    • Do you offer paid or unpaid maternity or paternity leave for workers? Is the length of this leave negotiable?

Work scheduling, predictability, and flexibility

    • Is there a systematic way for workers to communicate their preferences for hours and schedules? If not, could some such system be implemented?
    • Does the shift/hours scheduling system take account of workers’ constraints and preferences?
    • Are work schedules announced more than a day or two in advance? Can workers trade shifts with colleagues when time conflicts develop (allow “shift-swapping”)?
    • If workers are asked to stay beyond the end of scheduled shifts to finish assignments or for administrative procedures, are they given advance notice of when this may be required?
    • Does the measured workload take into account the quality or difficulty of tasks along with simpler measures of the number of customers, clients, or patients?

Autonomy, respect, and trust

    • Are workers protected from “no-fault” absence or tardiness policies (ones that lead to disciplinary actions or dismissal, even for excused absences)?
    • Are workers allowed or encouraged to contribute ideas to better organize or improve their work teams or work areas?
    • Can workers occasionally make personal phone calls?

This is an excerpt from The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, in partnership with the Center for American Progress. Download the full report here for FREE from January 12th – January 15th.


REFERENCES FOR THRIVE INDEX

Appelbaum, Eileen, P. Berg, A. Frost, and G. Preuss. 2002. “The Effects of Work Restructuring on Low-wage, Low-Skill Workers in U.S. Hospitals.” New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Batt, Rosemary, V. Doellgast, and H. Kwon. 2005. “U.S. Call Center Industry Report 2004 National Benchmarking Report Strategy, HR Practices & Performance.” Cornell University Working Paper

Berg, Peter, and Ann C. Frost. “Dignity at work for low wage, low skill service workers.” Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relations 60 (4) (2005): 657–682.

Bernhardt, Annette. 1999. “The Future of Low-Wage Jobs: Case Studies in the Retail Industry.” Columbia University Institute on Education and the Economy, Working Paper 10.

Bernhardt, Annette, L. Dresser, and E. Hatton. 2003. “The Coffee Pot Wars: Unions and Firm Restructuring in the Hotel Industry.” In E. Appelbaum, A. Bernhardt, and R. Murnane, eds., Low-Wage America: How employers are reshaping opportunity in the workplace. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Bond, J.T., and E. Galinsky. 2012. “What Difference do Job Characteristics Make to Low-income Employees?” New York: Families and Work Institute.

Bond, J.T., and E. Galinsky. 2012. “Low-Income Employees in the United States.” New York: Families and Work Institute.

Bond, J.T., E. Tahmincioglu, and E. Galinsky. 2012. “Not Just ‘Jobs’ … ‘Good Jobs’: The Low-Income Workforce Challenge.” New York: Families and Work Institute.

Bornstein, Stephanie. 2012. “Work, Family, and Discrimination at the Bottom of the Ladder.” Georgetown Journal on Poverty & Law Policy, Vol. 19.

Carre, Françoise, Chris Tilly, and Diana Denham. 2010. “Explaining Variation in the quality of US retail jobs.” New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Gautié, Jérôme, and John Schmitt, eds. 2010. Low-wage Work in the Wealthy World. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Gornick, Janet C., and Marcia Meyers. 2005. Families That Work: Policies For Reconciling Parenthood And Employment. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Heymann, J., and others. 2002. “Work-Family Issues and Low-Income Families.” New York: Ford Foundation.

Lambert, Susan J., Anna Haley-Lock, and Julia R. Henly. 2012. “Schedule Flexibility in Hourly Jobs: Unanticipated Consequences and Promising Directions.” Community, Work & Family 15 (3): 293–315.

Presser, Harriet B. 1995. “Job, Family, and Gender: Determinants of Nonstandard Work Schedules Among Employed Americans in 1991.” Demography 32 (4): 577–598. JSTOR. Web. May 19, 2013.

Ton, Zeynep. 2012. “Why ‘Good Jobs’ are Good for Retailers.” Harvard Business Review 90 (1-2): 124–131, 154.

Ton, Zeynep. 2009. “The Effect of Labor on Profitability: The Role of Quality.” Harvard Business School Working Paper.

Williams, Joan C. 2006. “One Sick Child Away from Being Fired: When ‘Opting Out’ is Not an Option.” University of California, Hastings: The Center for WorkLife Law.

Williams, Joan C., and Penelope Huang. 2011. “Improving Work-Life Fit in Hourly Jobs: An underutilized cost-cutting strategy in a globalized world.” University of California, Hastings: The Center for WorkLife Law.

ENDNOTES

[1] Lucia Herrera, interview with Eve Tahmincioglu of Families and Work Institute, July 23, 2013. The name of the interviewee has been changed to protect her identity and the identity of others referenced in her story.

[2]Families and Work Institute, “2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce.”

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sofia Lopez, interview with Eve Tahmincioglu of Families and Work Institute, July 19, 2013. The name of the interviewee has been changed to protect her identity and the identity of others referenced in her story.

[5] Lucia Herrera, interview with Eve Tahmincioglu of Families and Work Institute, on July 23, 2013. The name of the interviewee has been changed to protect her identity and the identity of others referenced in her story.

[6] Families and Work Institute, “2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce.”

[7] Sofia Lopez, interview with Eve Tahmincioglu of Families and Work Institute, July 19, 2013. The name of the interviewee has been changed to protect her identity and the identity of others referenced in her story.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Families and Work Institute, “2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce.”

[10] The concept of “workplace effectiveness” evolved from our efforts to identify characteristics of jobs and workplaces most strongly associated with positive outcomes for employers and employees using data from the 1997, 2002, and 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce surveys. Fuller discussion of what makes for an effective workplace can be found in the following publications: J.T. Bond, E. Galinsky, and E.J. Hill, “When Work Works: Flexibility, a Critical Ingredient in Creating an Effective Workplace” (New York: Families and Work Institute, 2004); J.T. Bond and E. Galinsky, “How Can Employers Increase the Productivity and Retention of Entry-Level, Hourly Employees?” (New York: Families and Work Institute, 2006); J.T. Bond and E. Galinsky, “What Difference Do Job Characteristics Make to Low-Income Employees?” (New York: Families and Work Institute, 2012). These and other reports are available at Families and Work Institute’s website.

[11] Ibid.

[12] J.T. Bond and E. Galinsky, “What Difference Do Job Characteristics Make to Low-Income Employees?”

[13] J. Heymann with M. Barrera, Profit at the Bottom of the Economic Ladder: Creating Value By Investing in Your Workforce (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2010); W.F. Cascio, “The economic impact of employee behaviors on organizational performance.” In E. E. Lawler III and J. O’Toole, eds., America at work: Choices and challenges (New York:Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), pp. 241–256.

[14] The Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis is partially funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the policies of the Department of Health and Human Services.

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