Workplace flexibility policies would benefit Maine’s working families and its large population of senior workers as well as its economy. Workplace flexibility means the acceptance of adjustments to the 9-5, 40 hour in-office work week, and could include accommodations like: flexible hours; paid vacation, sick, and parental leave; job sharing; telecommuting. Maine legislators should consider legislative initiatives either to establish such policies or to incentivize employers to take the initial leap toward increased flexibility. More family-friendly workplace rules will provide Maine employers a competitive edge and a much-needed relief for Maine workers.
Today’s workforce is much different from the workforce of the 1950’s. Workers are retiring increasingly later and women are moving from the secretary desk to the corner office. Unfortunately, the workplace hasn’t changed to match the new workforce’s needs. The standard American workplace is the same now as it has been since the end of World War II: nine to five, five days a week. No federal law mandates paid vacation time, paid sick leave, or paid family leave. Nor are these benefits required in Maine. Workforce diversity can enable a larger, stronger economy—but it has also created a diversity of accommodative scheduling needs. Increasingly, even more traditional young male workers are sharing family responsibilities with their partners. The one-size fits all workplace has become antiquated as the workforce has grown more robust.
The need for workplace flexibility is beginning to garner attention. In June, President Obama advocated for workplace flexibility, telling the White House summit on working families that such policies “are not frills, they are basic needs…They should be part of our bottom line as a society.” Savvy individual employers are already implementing increased workplace flexibility, noting decreases in expensive staff turnovers, higher productivity, lower absentee rates, and a strong hiring tool to attract talent.
Flexibility policies would benefit Maine’s large population of elderly workers and their employers. Maine has the highest median age of any state: 43.5 years. Financial need often requires older workers to stay in the workforce longer. Retaining older workers also can ensure that jobs requiring particular skills remain filled despite the skills gap. Keeping older workers in the workplace means fewer turnovers for businesses, decreased reliance on government services, and a patch in Maine’s skill gap.
Workplace flexibility also makes life easier for Maine’s many working mothers. According to a report by Working Poor Families, women head one in three working poor households. A Bangor Daily News analysis of Department of Health and Human Services data found that 40 percent of babies born in Maine in 2011 were born to unwed women. Workplace flexibility laws would help ensure that women do not have to choose between taking care of a sick child and keeping a job. In turn, working women will have increased their financial independence and a decreased reliance on the state.
Legislating workplace flexibility has precedent. Former Vermont governor Kunin has championed workplace flexibility. In January, Vermont’s “right to request” law took effect, ensuring that employers must consider a request for flexible scheduling without the employee fearing penalty and must grant reasonable requests unless employers offer a compelling case for denial.
Implementing workplace flexibility policies in Maine would ensure that working mothers could care for a sick child and that more aging workers could attend doctor appointments without penalty from their employers. Workplace flexibility policies would also give Maine employers a competitive hiring edge, the financial benefit of decreased turnover rates, and a larger, stronger workforce. Workplace flexibility is good for everyone: employer, working mothers, aging workforce, and traditional young male workers. It’s the 21st century—high time for the workplace to catch up.