Wednesday, January 9, 2002

Nancy Coleman or Tom Kiley, (202) 775-8810



U.S. Can Learn From Other Industrial Nations, Authors Advise

Washington D.C. – Insights from the experiences of companies in other countries can point the way for new U.S. workplace policies that would make it easier for American workers to balance the demands of career and family, says a new report from the Economic Policy Institute.

That report, Shared Work, Valued Care: New Norms for Organizing Market Work and Unpaid Care Work, says that employers today expect to be entitled to “unencumbered workers” – that is, employees who function as if they had a partner or other caregiver at home full time.

This expectation, however, ignores the mass entrance of women into the work force over the past three decades. In 1967, about one-third of married women worked outside the home; in 1999, it was closer to two-thirds. And among all women over the age of 20, the share in the labor market went from 41.2 percent in 1967 to 60.1 percent in 1999.

“Workplaces in the U.S. are in a kind of time warp, where the way work is scheduled and done is drastically out of step with the reality of workers’ lives,” says Eileen Appelbaum, a co-author of the report. “Far more women are working now than ever before. Yet we as a society have done nothing to help families handle the mounting conflict between work and family responsibilities.”

Shared Work, Valued Care describes successful programs in Japan, Australia, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy that allow workers greater work-time flexibility and better child and elder care benefits.

The authors of the report are Appelbaum, Thomas Bailey, Peter Berg, and Arne Kalleberg. Among the practices they observed in the course of their travels were the following:

Working from Home | Australia

  • A law firm in Sydney, Australia, with 1,500 employees worldwide, lets employees work from home one day a week, and provides them with a laptop computer, fax machine, extra telephone line, and cell phone. Lawyers may also leave work early and then spend a few hours working at night after the children are in bed. Finally, lawyers may cut back their hours to three days in the office and a half day working from home each week.

Reduced Hours and Job Sharing | The Netherlands and Sweden

  • At an elder care facility in the Netherlands, only five of the 100 employees work full time. Part-time employees are paid the same hourly rate that full-time employees are paid, and their benefits are prorated. Workers can reduce their hours when their children are young and increase them later. Despite a national nursing shortage, this facility has had little trouble attracting younger nurses who must combine work and family responsibilities and older nurses who need a slower pace.
  • A Dutch multinational company with 90,000 employees worldwide introduced a job-sharing program in response to requests from employees for part-time hours. Between 30 and 40 percent of part-time employees are now participating, usually by pairs of workers alternating two and three day weeks.
  • A cardiac hospital in the Netherlands with 2,500 workers maintains full-time work weeks of 32 or 36 hours. Shifts are eight hours a day, so workers achieve a 36-hour week by working five days one week and four days the next, or by alternating between six and three days. They may also work a permanent 32-hour week for prorated pay.
  • Under Swedish law, workers at a steel company that the authors visited can opt to work a six-hour day instead of an eight-hour day, until their children are eight years old or in the first grade. The company pro-rates the workers’ pay, with the balance covered by social insurance for eligible workers.

Greater Flexibility in Work Schedules | Australia, Germany, and Italy

  • Nurses at an Australian hospital enjoy greater flexibility by arranging their own work schedules. The nurses all indicate their desired four-week schedule, and then the nurses in a department negotiate among themselves. A manager then settles any conflicts and determines a final schedule. This is feasible partly because of the large number of permanent part-time nurses the hospital employs, who are often willing to pick up an extra shift (for which they are rewarded with a 15 percent premium).
  • Two automakers – one in Germany, the other in Italy – work to better match output to demand by maintaining changing schedules. The German plant has a 28.8 hour work week for nine weeks, with the tenth week off. Workers are paid for 28.8 hours for all ten weeks, and can be required to work up to 40 hours a week, but hours over 28.8 are credited to an employee’s “working-time account.”

The Italian plant averages weekly hours over a three-week period, so that employees work 48 hours (six days) for two weeks and 24 hours (three days) the third week, averaging to 40 hours per week.

Paid Parental Leave | Sweden

  • At a Swedish electronics facility, workers may choose to work any eight hours between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. Swedish law provides social insurance that replaces up to 80 percent of wages for parental leave; this firm has also adopted a policy to make sure that its workers always reach that 80 percent cap if they choose to take parental leave.

Career-Track Jobs for Women and On-Site Day Care | Japan and Sweden

  • A Japanese publishing firm promotes career track jobs for women employees with a range of incentives, including reduced work hours, child and family leave, career development, and on-site day care. A human resources consulting company in Australia offers on-site day care facilities for infants and toddlers.

Based on their research, the authors have developed the following proposals for making work more family friendly:

  • Work hours revisions. The authors call for legislation that would allow for a shorter work week for all workers and limits on mandatory overtime, as well as legislation allowing workers to request up to a 20 percent reduction in hours for a pro-rated reductions in pay and benefits.
  • Equity. The authors propose equal opportunity and non-discrimination provisions to improve the options for part-time workers and to address the pay gap between men and women. They also propose investments in day care, elder care, universal preschool, and before and after school programs for children.
  • Fixing the safety net. Finally, the authors call for a stronger social safety net, including universal access to health care; social insurance for maternity leave, parental leave, and long-term family medical leave; a guaranteed wage floor by indexing the minimum wage to median wage growth; and better retirement and unemployment insurance benefits.

“Families are stuck performing an impossible juggling act between their duties at work and their duties at home,” says Appelbaum. “We need new policies that will provide some real relief.”

Eileen Appelbaum is the research director at EPI. Thomas Bailey is a professor of economics at the Teachers College, Columbia University. Peter Berg is an assistant professor at the School of Labor and Industrial Relations at Michigan State University. Arne Kalleberg is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Download the full report here.


The Economic Policy Institute is a non-partisan, non-profit economic think tank founded in 1986. The Institute is located on the web at