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The Right Time

A Response to Can Working Families Ever Win?

Thomas A. Kochan

8 Americans need a new set of family- centered labor market policies and institutions if we are to address the problems facing working families that Jody Heymann documents so clearly and eloquently. The policies and institutions governing work today are better suited to the industrial economy of the New Deal era. The typical worker of that time was assumed to be a male breadwinner in a long term career with a large company earning a wage sufficient to support his family. However, today women account for half the workforce; less than 20 percent of families consist of a male breadwinner with a wife at home; employment durations are both shorter and more uncertain; and work takes place in a wide variety of small and large firms, independent contractor/consultant relationships, and in multiple locations including in the home. The failure to update policies and institutions to fit these new realities of work and family life is a major reason why, as Heymann argues, it is nearly impossible for lower income working families to succeed both at work and in caring for their families.

What would such an updated view of labor market policies and institutions look like? Consider just one piece of the puzzle: How to provide all working families with paid leave that could be used in a flexible fashion to meet the different types of family needs encountered at different stages of one's family life cycle.1  Heymann rightly views the provision of some form of paid time off to care for children and family needs as the basic building block of any family-centered labor market policy. She notes that while many in the upper half of family income distribution can draw on vacation, sick leave, or flexible working hours to attend to family needs without loss of pay, the majority of low-paid workers lack access to any form of paid time off for these purposes. The policy challenge is how to extend these benefits to the working poor without duplicating them for those already covered and without imposing rigid and costly requirements that are poorly tailored to the variety of family needs people experience at different stages of their careers.

One way to do this would be to create a set of minimum standards (Heymann proposes the equivalent of two weeks paid leave per year) while allowing employers and employees considerable flexibility in how to integrate this leave with existing policies and practices. Individuals could be encouraged to set up flexible time accounts analogous to 401K plans or individual retirement accounts. These accounts could be (1) flexible, so that they could be used for any family care needs; (2) accruable to the individual so that unused days saved in one year carry over into the future; (3) portable, so that the dollar equivalents of unused leave move with an employee across job changes; and (4) contributory, so that individuals could choose to allocate some portion of current vacation or sick leave to this purpose in the current period or match employer contributions to their accounts with pre-tax salary deductions.

Updating leave policies to make this approach work would require corresponding changes within key labor market institutions as well in the relationships among them at the workplace, community, and national levels. Unions and professional associations, for example, could sponsor and administer these plans. They would need to offer their members continuous, lifetime memberships that are not dependent on whether or not a collective bargaining relationship exists on their current jobs. Within firms, peer employees, supervisors, and managers would need to work together to redesign work and encourage use of flexible time benefits in ways that promote efficiency, fairness, and that protect caregivers from stigmatization and career damage. Some form of community-level 'Working Family Councils' would also be needed to support both these workplace innovations and the range of improvements in transportation, education, and other social institutions that Heymann rightly argues are necessary to make the American Dream accessible to the children of today's working families. These regional groups could then come together annually in a 'National Working Families Summit' to take stock of the nation's progress in meeting these needs.

Still, we must ask: Is this all unrealistic? After all, labor policies have been stalled by a political impasse between labor and business for over thirty years, and the current focus on the international war on terrorism means that these issues have been pushed even farther off the national agenda. I believe it is possible to make political progress, but only if we begin to see work and family policies as tightly coupled components of a progressive social policy agenda. I believe the American public is ready to support innovative proposals that respond to the realities of work and family as they experience it today—proposals that bypass the single-earner model of the New Deal era. The American public not only needs a family-centered labor market policy—it is ready and waiting for one to be proposed. Any leader who has the courage to do so will unleash a groundswell of political support and reap its benefits for a long time to come.<


Thomas A. Kochan teaches at the Sloan School of Management and co-directs both the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research and the MIT Workplace Center.

Return to the forum on Caregiving, with Jody Heymann and respondents.

Note

1 These comments build on ideas developed in two recent works: Paul Osterman, Thomas Kochan, Richard Locke, and Michael Piore, Working in America: A Blueprint for the Labor Market (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001); and Lotte Bailyn, Robert Drago, and Thomas Kochan, Integrating Work and Family Life: A Holistic Approach (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Sloan School of Management, 2001).


Originally published in the February/March 2002 issue of Boston Review



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