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When Flexible Schedules Hurt — Dan Clawsen and Naomi Gerstel

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Dan Clawson and Naomi Gerstel from the Sociology Department at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. They’re co-authors of Unequal Time: Gender, Class and Family in Employment Schedules and they spoke about the problem with flexible schedules at work.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: What are the pernicious problems of flex-time that have you two discovered in your research?

Dan Clawson: The rhetoric and the practice is that flexible schedules will liberate us. But many employers have appropriated the language of flexibility and changed it around. Increasingly what flexibility means is that workers come in whenever the employer wants them to and are sent home when demand is slack.  It’s putting employers’ demands first. And if that’s what flexibility means, then workers aren’t very happy with it.

SF: It’s flexibility for whom, right? And if it’s not for the employee, then what’s the point?

DC: For an employer you’re paying only for those hours that you most need the workers and any time that you don’t need them, you send them home.

SF: So that means less control and predictability for employees.

Naomi Gerstel: It turns out that there are a lot of employees in these circumstances: young, old, salaried, working class, women, men.  Unpredictable hours are growing and they’re very painful for people.  And not only painful in the workplace but also outside. If they have children or elderly parents that they care or other family or personal obligations, it makes it hard.

SF: How extensive is flexibility solely at the behest of the employer? How widespread is this problem? And is this part of a pattern of change over the last decade or so?

NG: We don’t have data over time, but we do know that the economy is changing now. There’s technological development and changing views of workers that means that employers are increasingly staffing lean so that enforce these unpredictable hours. And we know that there are changes in families which are themselves sources of increasing unpredictability. There are more single mothers, there are more dual-earner couples, so there’s lots of reasons to believe that it’s increasing. People have just begun to collect data that show that it’s a very common problem.

SF: You mentioned that it’s not just people at the low end of the wage spectrum. How is this affecting people at the high end of the economic ladder?

DC: We interviewed one doctor and when we asked him how often he had to unpredictably had to stay late he responded, “Every night, according to my family.”  And we found that in a high end nursing home with a stable number of residents, one out of every three shifts was one that had not been scheduled in advance. So there’s a high level of unpredictability across the spectrum.

SF: And this, of course, wreaks havoc on schedules at home. What have you observed about the impact of unpredictable hours at work on workers’ families – stability, health, relationships?

NG: The effect on families depend on the economic position of the worker. Among professionals, like doctors, a very high proportion of them, men who work very long hours tend to have wives who are home or who work part-time.  They can pick up the slack when they don’t show up or can’t show up because they’re working for pay. And with nurses we see the reverse pattern. The nurses are insisting that the organizations allow them to take time to take care of their families. And they’re able to do that because nurses are in short supply. We did hundreds of interviews with nurses, doctors, nursing assistants, and emergency medical technicians and one nurse manager said to us, “You know, they’re always FMLA’ing us.” FMLA is the Family and Medical Leave Act and she talked about how so many of the nurses knew about the FMLA and took advantage of it which was rarely true for the less well paid, less well educated nursing assistants.

SF: So, it’s partly a matter of knowing your rights. So how can we help educate people about the protections that are offered, even though they are still so much smaller than those offered in other developed countries?

NG: That’s an understatement. There aren’t a lot of protections in this country! The only one is the FMLA at the moment.  But in some states paid leave is beginning to appear. But we have found that most people don’t use it or they aren’t allowed to use it especially as you move down the class structure. They don’t know about it, they don’t use it, and they’re not allowed to use it. The law is broken all the time.

SF: In the medical profession?

NG: Both in the study reported in our book, Unequal Time, but also in the national study more generally.

DC: At the nursing home where we got the records of who worked when in a 6 month period, there was only one day over that entire 6 months that was charged to a Family and Medical Leave Act. The policy at this nursing home – they had 6 paid sick days per year – was that the 1st time that somebody called out they were given a verbal warning, the 2nd time a written warning, the 3rd time a stronger written warning and the 4th time they were fired. Few states have legal protections. The clock re-set every 90 days so the director of nursing didn’t think the policy was strict enough. But that meant that if you were a single mother with two kids and something was going around and first one kid got it and then a week later the other kid got it and then a week later you got it, then if anybody was sick in the next 2 ½ months you’d be fired.

SF: Where are we going as a nation with work/life policies and practices? Is there any reason for hope?

NG: That’s a very good and a very hard question. There’s certainly a fair amount of movement, activism, to create more predictable schedules, to offer people leaves and paid leaves.  But the country is increasingly moving away from helping those who have less. We talk a lot about the growing wealth inequality but we what we worry about is that the growing time inequality is accompanying that wealth inequality. So that time, like wealth, is becoming a perk of the few. That’s the fear.

DC: All of that is absolutely true and that’s the main dynamic. But the counter movement is that at the state level and at the city level we have seen places pass laws that guarantee everybody the right to get paid sick days (or unpaid sick days depending on the size of the employer). And we have also increasingly seen movements to provide paid family leave.

NG: San Francisco just passed a bill that requires businesses to set schedules two weeks in advance so there are all sorts of movements to try to provide leaves and predictability. So it’s not as though it’s been only backward motion, but so far the gains have been relatively small.

SF:  The title of your new book is Unequal Time: Gender, Class and Family in Employment Schedules, so how does gender factor into unequal time?

NG: Gender interacts with class. Among those who are relatively well-off, the doctors and nurses, they tend to “do gender” in fairly conventional ways. Men do relatively little family work; their spouses and sometimes their nannies do it for them. And female nurses are the reverse, they tend to care of families.  But when we turn to low wage workers whether women or men we see that they “undo gender.” Sometimes this is because they have no other choice because the wife (the certified nursing assistant) becomes the primary breadwinner. And with working class men, the emergency medical technicians, tend to do far more of the work of the home than do professional men.

SF: How do you explain that?

DC: They don’t have a choice. The male doctors are earning 87% of their household’s income. For the emergency medical technicians it’s a much lower percentage and a much higher percentage of their wives are working and are working full-time so they need that income.  It’s not something they can do without and therefore they need to juggle childcare.

NG: Often their wives, who make a fairly high proportion of the family income, insist that they do.

SF: So the more equal the income contribution of partners the more likely it is that they’ll have egalitarian gender roles at home?

NG: Yes, but that’s only part of the story because the [female] nurses tend to earn a relatively high proportion of the family income and in a fair number of cases, more than their husbands. And yet they still do more of the domestic labor.  So, it’s both money and culture that shape what people do.

SF: Again, what pattern do you see over time and what do you anticipate in the future?

DC: I think there’s much more awareness of the issue now than there was when we began working on this book. But there isn’t yet a kind of unified awareness or language. It’s analogous to when, in the 1960’s Betty Friedan wrote that there was “a problem with no name.” Union negotiators, for instance, told us the negotiations would be boring and technical. And the technical turned out to be about unpredictable schedules.  There wasn’t yet an awareness of this as a problem among unions, of the connections between vacations and over-time, and being sent home unexpectedly. I think this consciousness is developing.  There are many more news articles about it.  The question is whether this growing awareness will grow into a movement to make real changes with respect to the importance of predictable schedules for our families.

NG: People have a tendency to think about their hours that there’s something wrong with them that they can’t keep control over their time. What we’re trying to show is that this isn’t simply a personal issue, that it’s a social and political issue.  As people start to understand that it’s politics and structures and that countries elsewhere do it differently they can start to fight for the right to control their time and the right to have a life outside work.

Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.



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