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Balancing Acts (EPI book)

Balancing ActsClick here to purchase Balancing Acts online.

APRIL 2000 EPI Book

Balancing Acts
Easing the Burdens and Improving the Options for Working Families

A Conference Volume

Eileen Appelbaum, editor


On June 15, 1999, at the request of Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, the Economic Policy Institute, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Program on Working Families, and the U.S. Department of Labor Workforce/Workplace of the Future Project sponsored a symposium on working families. The symposium – Balancing Acts: Easing the Burdens and Improving the Options for Working Families – was held in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in order to facilitate discussion among researchers and policy makers. Its purpose was to bring together key experts from the research, labor, and business communities to discuss the latest findings and trends in the area of work and family life with an invited audience of policy makers, advocacy groups, and representatives of business and unions. Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota gave the lunch address. The researchers who participated shared the results of cutting-edge studies in which they are engaged, while practitioners shared the latest information about the work/life policies and practices firms are implementing and the innovative contracts unions are negotiating. Secretary Herman’s futurework report, available on the Department of Labor’s Web site, drew heavily on the work presented at the symposium. In addition, the secretary made those issues a focus of her activities over Labor Day 1999. This volume presents the proceedings of the symposium.


Introduction: The new realities of family life and the workplace: Is there a mismatch?
-Eileen Appelbaum

Part I: Recent Research on the New Realities of Working Families
Chapter 1: Setting the Stage: Work and Family Lives of Americans
-Suzanne M. Bianchi

Chapter 2: The Time-Squeeze in American Families:
From Causes to Solutions
-Marin Clarkberg

Chapter 3: Cultural Dilemmas in Changing Work and Family Life in the United States
-Tom Fricke

Chapter 4: Problems Facing the Working Poor
-Marlene Kim

Part II: How Families Juggle Competing Demands
Chapter 5: Promoting Workforce Effectiveness and Life Quality: Early Evidence From the Cornell Couples and Careers Study
-Phyllis Moen with Deborah Harris-Abbott, Shinok Lee, and Patricia Roehling

Chapter 6: On the High Wire: How the Working Poor Juggle Job and Family Responsibilities
-Katherine S. Newman

Chapter 7: Helping Families With Young Children Navigate Work and Family Life
-Ellen Galinsky and James T. Bond

Chapter 8: Balancing Work and Family: Effects of High-Performance
Work Systems and High-Commitment Workplaces
-Eileen Appelbaum, Peter Berg, and Arne L. Kalleberg

Part III: Workplace Models That Increase Family Options
Chapter 9: Labor Unions Speak for Working Families
-Netsy Firestein and the Labor Project for Working Families

Chapter 10: A Coming of Age: Work/Life Flexibility
-Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes


The changing arithmetic of the family
Work and family life have undergone radical changes in recent decades. The traditional family – the most prevalent form of family organization for most of the 20th century – consisted of a husband who held a job and worked full time and a wife whose energies were fully devoted to raising the children, managing the household, caring for the elderly, and developing ties to the community. As recently as 1973, nearly 60% of wives in married-couple families stayed home. Of those who were employed, many worked fewer than 20 hours a week. Thus, most traditional families had two full-time jobs – a paid job at work and an unpaid one at home – and two adults to perform these jobs.

Today, more than 60% of wives are in the paid workforce, and nearly as large a proportion of married women with children under the age of six are employed. These dual-earner families have three jobs – two paid work jobs and one home job – but they still have only two adults available. In the single-headed household, an increasingly common form of family and one through which many parents and children pass at some point in their lives, only one adult is available to perform both the work and home jobs. The sheer physical labor involved in meeting these demands is daunting for families in which every available adult has a job outside the home. And families, especially those with children or elderly relatives to care for, require extensive emotional labor as well. The catch-as-catch-can nature of many child care arrangements and the difficulty of arranging for elder care only add to the challenges facing working families.

These changes in what Kathleen Christensen and Ralph Gomory of the Sloan Foundation have termed the “fundamental arithmetic of the family” are creating stresses that affect both family life and workers’ performance on the job. The equality in the ratio of jobs to adults in the traditional family has been replaced by the unequal ratio of three jobs to two adults in dual-earner families and the ratio of two jobs to one adult in single-headed families. One result has been an increase in work/family conflict. According to the Families and Work Institute’s National Study of the Changing Workforce, the percent of employed parents with children under six who reported significant work/family conflict increased from 16% in 1992 to 34% in 1997.

Moreover, the number of hours that employed family members work has increased. Many part-time workers today are employed between 20 and 34 hours a week – closer to full-time jobs than the short-hour jobs of the past. Mandatory overtime for hourly workers has increased. And the lean staffing adopted by many companies in the 1990s has, in many instances, meant fewer employees but no reduction in the amount of work to be accomplished. Fifty- hour weeks or more for managers and professionals are not uncommon.

These increases in family members’ participation in paid employment and in the work week have had a great impact on family hours worked in the 1980s and 1990s. Middle-income families increased employment outside the home by five weeks of full-time work in the 1980s and an additional three weeks in the 1990s, for a total of two full months more of paid employment. On average, middle- income families now work more than 3,300 hours a year. (For comparison, a worker employed 35 hours a week for 52 weeks would work 1,820 hours; one employed 40 hours a week would work 2,080 hours.) Single-mother middle- income families have experienced a similar increase in paid employment, with nearly all of the extra two months of work outside the home added in the 1990s. These single-mother families now work 1,900 hours a year on average. The largest increase in hours of work, however, has occurred among married couples with children. Middle-income families comprising married couples with children have increased their annual hours of work from 3,200 in 1979 to 3,800 in 1998 – an additional three-and-a-half months a year.

Families at the top of the income distribution – those in the top fifth – work even more hours. While family hours worked among this group haven’t changed much in the last two decades, these families work on average 4,400 hours a year. Single-mother families at the high end of the income distribution work 3,000 hours a year.

For many families, a return to the male breadwinner model and the old arithmetic of the fa
mily isn’t an option. This is clearly the case in single-mother families. But it is true of other families as well. Women in middle-income families have had to increase their hours of paid employment just to keep family income from declining – these families need two incomes just to make ends meet. Income in the typical married-couple family – the family in the middle of the income distribution – is $37,000 when only the husband works. When both work, median income in husband-wife families is $61,000; these wives provide 40% of the family’s income. In addition, for many women, achievement in the workplace and separate earnings streams are important values apart from the contribution they make to the family’s standard of living.

Families need better opportunities at work – careers, workloads, and schedules that vary over the family life cycle – and greater services and supports at home in order to make the new math work.

Workplace changes lag behind
Important changes in the workplace have occurred as well in recent years. Many companies have undertaken significant changes in business strategies, work organization, and human resource practices to improve competitiveness in global and deregulated national markets, and these changes have important ramifications for workplace stress and workers’ everyday work experiences.

One development has been a heightened emphasis at many firms on maximizing shareholder value, often at the expense of other company goals. This goal has led corporate headquarters in some firms to turn plants or worksites into profit centers that are evaluated primarily on their contribution to corporate share performance. This emphasis favors cost-cutting measures that yield immediate improvements in the bottom line with little regard for their effects on employee stress and morale – or for their effects on the long-term competitiveness of the company. The result is that companies downsize jobs without reducing the amount of work to be done, leaving those employees who survive to deal with job insecurity, long work weeks, and the stress of too much to do and too many demands on their time. Or they may outsource and subcontract work to jobbers and contractors who often provide precarious employment at lower wages and with few benefits to workers in nonstandard jobs. The negative effects on families of increased insecurity, reduced financial circumstances, inadequate health coverage for family members, uncertain retirement income, long work weeks, and stress at work are well known. But, as once was true of the environmental costs of industrial pollution, the social costs of firms’ decisions to downsize or restructure do not enter into the calculus of private profit and loss.

Despite this tendency by corporate executives to favor quick and low-cost solutions, however, many organizations have embarked on a different path and are making costly and difficult changes in how work is organized and managed. The pace of experimentation with innovative workplace practices, in which workers participate in operational decisions and have greater discretion over the work process, has accelerated in recent years. And an increasing number of companies have adopted high performance work systems in which work has been restructured to provide nonmanagerial employees with the opportunity, the ability, and the incentive to intervene in production processes and improve organizational routines. High performance workplaces are frequently high commitment workplaces as well, where management adopts practices and managers conduct themselves in ways that build trust and mutual commitment. The nature of both the company’s culture and its work processes can affect the quality of an employee’s life on the job, and can spill over into the ability of employees to deal with the demands of family life. While family-friendly policies cannot overcome an oppressive atmosphere at work, structuring the work itself so that it is challenging, makes use of people’s skills, and gives employees responsibility and authority for decisions that affect the work process can have a positive effect on employees’ ability to balance work and family demands.

Less frequently, companies have adopted human resource practices that allow employees to meet the demands of both work life and home life. Work/life integration practices refer to a broad range of company policies and practices that address the time and timing of work, as well as dependent-care issues. The focus on time leads to policies that include flexible scheduling (part-time schedules or a compressed work week), paid parental leave, job sharing, and sabbaticals. The focus on dependents leads to policies that include elder-care arrangements, on-site or near-site day care, back-up child care for sick children or babysitting emergencies, and flexible spending accounts that enable employees to pay for care for children or elderly relatives with pre-tax dollars. Included are informal and formal practices initiated by line managers as well as policies promulgated by human resource managers.

A 1992 survey by Paul Osterman of a representative sample of establishments with 50 or more employees found that only 2% of the sample provided on-site day care. Between 4% and 10% of establishments provided different types of subsidies for day care, 14% made day care referrals, 15% had a full-time, work/family staff employee, 24% gave workshops on work/family issues, and 40% had some form of flexible hours. Very few companies appear to have adopted work/life policies as a strategy for improving effectiveness and competitiveness. Moreover, even when companies have such policies on their books or make use of such practices somewhere in their operations, they generally remain reluctant to allow widespread access by employees to these policies and practices.

As recently as the 1980s, surveys of firms suggested that companies adopted flexible staffing and other family-friendly policies as a means to enhance their reputations. Reputation effects may still be important to some companies, especially those that market their products or services to working mothers. Today, however, most companies report that they adopt these practices for more fundamental business reasons. Some companies, having observed a link between employees’ satisfaction with their work/life balance and customer satisfaction with the companies’ services, have adopted such practices to improve performance. Others have implemented these practices to improve recruitment and retention and to reduce absenteeism and turnover. With more mothers working and more dual-earner families, demographics are an important force behind firms’ adoption of such policies. As working mothers become a significant share of the skilled workforce, company concerns about the costs of recruiting and training replacements, if these employees leave because of an inability to reconcile work and family, become salient. Tight labor markets, which have increased the difficulty and cost of recruiting for these positions, may be another important reason for the increased salience of these concerns. Despite the increased frequency with which companies have adopted these practices somewhere in the company, however, they are still not widely available to employees.

Thus, the workplace is changing. But changes in this realm lag behind those in family structure. Firms remain largely unable to accommodate the dynamics of family structure over the life cycle. Two-parent families may become one-parent families. Dual-earner families may choose, or be forced by economic or other circumstances, to become single-earner families for some periods of time, or to reduce hours of work. One or both adults may choose, or find it necessary, to work part-time or to become self-employed at some time during their working lives.

Workplaces, however, mainly continue to maintain in place the practices, policies, and structures they had 50 years ago, when most employees were men who worked full-time, 40-hour weeks. The result is a mismatch betwe
en the needs of contemporary employees, most of whom are members of families in which every available adult is in the workforce, and the structures and rhythms of the workplace.

The goals of this book
The essays in this book focus on the challenges, constraints, and options facing working families. Families need to be able to choose their own course – preferring in some cases to emphasize the job at home and in others to facilitate paid employment and dual careers. For many families, these preferences will be different at different stages of the life cycle. This book reports on recent research on work and family, and connects it to strategies that we, as a society, can develop to assist working families and increase the life satisfaction and performance of employees.

The book is organized into three sections. The first section describes the latest research on the new realities for working families; the second section addresses the question of what helps working families juggle competing demands; and the final section examines workplace models that increase the options for working families.

In describing the new realities, Suzanne Bianchi notes that most Americans still marry and have children, and many will have responsibility for elderly relatives at some time. As a result, most of us will have periods in which the competing demands of the family and the workplace are intense. She documents the accommodations families have made to combine paid work and childrearing and reports that many individuals feel they have struck a reasonable balance. More troubling is the gendered response to work and family balance she observes.

Marin Clarkberg examines the growing perception of a time famine in the U.S. and the sense of always feeling rushed. She examines the work hours of both husbands and wives and finds a dramatic disconnect between husbands’ and wives’ preferred and actual weekly hours. Among her findings is that employers have failed to accommodate the preferences of husbands and wives for part-time work.

Tom Fricke argues that understanding the cultural context is important for understanding individual work and family behavior. He suggests, for example, that cultural models that kept married women out of the labor force have changed more rapidly than have the obligation structures of these models. The result is that women now work, but they are also burdened by the second shift as they fulfill the obligations of an outdated cultural model. He raises equally provocative questions about the role of cultural models in other settings and about the balance of obligations, not just the balance of work and family, confronting Americans today.

More than half the working poor in America live in families with children, and the work/life problems of these employees are particularly acute. Marlene Kim documents the circumstances of the working poor, and shows that working poverty is linked to the job one holds. Many of the working poor are in single-parent households and face many hurdles, including, in addition to low wages, insufficient hours, insecure jobs, and lack of health care.

We turn in section two to the question of what helps working families juggle competing demands. Phyllis Moen and her associates identify a number of career strategies that working couples adopt in order to effectively manage two paid jobs along with their jobs at home. These strategies may differ for different cohorts of workers and at different life stages. Significantly, they depend as well on options available at work. This study also examines what works at work.

If middle-class Americans often find it difficult to juggle work and family responsibilities, the hurdles facing the working poor appear daunting. In addition to the work schedule and day care challenges that middle-class families face, the working poor must cope with fluctuating hours, overnight shifts, lack of health insurance, and no vacation or sick pay. Katherine Newman examines both the strategies these workers develop to construct personal “safety nets” to deal with the problems they face as well as the vulnerability of these solutions.

Solutions to the problems of meeting work and life responsibilities that working families face cannot be secured by the strategies of employees alone. If old structures persist in the workplace, and companies do not keep up with the changed requirements of the contemporary workforce, then employees will experience conflict. Adaptation will have to come from employers as well.

Ellen Galinsky and James T. Bond analyze the business response to employees’ work/family needs over time. They report on results of a 1998 survey of employers about programs and practices in their firms. Since employee access to practices may vary, the authors also use a separate employee survey to examine the access of employed parents of young children to a variety of benefits including family health insurance, flextime, and child care referral or subsidy. They also examine the effects of workplace culture and characteristics of the job on the amount of work/family conflict parents experience.

The effects of work practices, job characteristics, and the work environment may affect employees’ views that the company helps them balance work and family responsibilities. Researchers have begun to consider whether the key “work/family” variable may be the nature and structure of work itself. Eileen Appelbaum, Peter Berg, and Arne Kalleberg analyze a survey of blue-collar manufacturing employees to examine the effects of high-performance practices such as work teams and a high commitment environment based on trust on work/family balance.

The final section of the book examines workplace models that increase the options for working families. Netsy Firestein analyzes four case studies that show how unions have bargained collectively for child care, elder care, and other services. She also examines union successes in the areas of flexible work arrangements, paid family leave, and more generous family and medical leave provisions. Collective bargaining is not the only union strategy for improving conditions for working families, however, and coalition-building strategies in New York and California are also examined.

Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes notes that polls show that two-thirds of people feel that time pressures on working families are getting worse. Companies will have to do better. She argues, however, that work/life efforts are finally coming of age and may begin to have a positive effect on working families. Using data from the Business Week survey of companies, she focuses her analysis on two factors that affect time pressure – hours of work and employee control or flexibility concerning those hours – to examine what companies are currently doing and where they need to do more.

Three other speakers at the conference shared recent experiences with workplace initiatives that affect the ability of working families to succeed in their work and personal lives. Dana Friedman of Bright Horizons Family Solutions reported on a benchmarking study of work/life initiatives of 400 employers she conducted jointly with Beth Umland of William M. Mercer Inc. and others on the staffs of the two organizations. The study found that between 30% and 40% of the companies studied offered each of the traditional flexible work arrangements (compressed work weeks, telecommuting, job sharing, and flextime). When compared with earlier benchmark studies, these data show an increase in flexible work options. However, she noted that the availability of these work options has not kept pace with the demand from employees, as indicated on employee needs assessments.

Morty Miller of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HEREIU) reported on the child care benefits the union has negotiated with hotels in San Francisco. The benefits make child care affordable for the women, many of them recent immigrants, who clean hotel rooms and hold other less-skilled hotel jobs. A
nd they are flexible enough to be used for the types of in-home or extended family day care preferred by the employees.

Susan Hofman of AlliedSignal Corporation shared with us the company’s efforts to make AlliedSignal a better place to work and to engage employees in the process. By becoming a high-performance workplace, and engaging hourly as well as salaried employees, the company expects to be able to make jobs more interesting, build trust, compensate people fairly, provide opportunities for growth and advancement, and improve the quality of work life. Improving the “work” component of work/life integration helps employees achieve a better balance between demands of work and life.

Family work hours of both dual-earner families and single-parent families have increased dramatically over the last two decades. Workplaces are changing as well. While there are exemplary companies, the papers in this volume suggest that, for the most part, work is still governed by practices suited to a mainly male, full-time employee with a wife to attend to the home job. Dana Friedman reported that employer-paid health insurance is the family-friendly benefit most highly valued by employees. Yet, a decreasing proportion of workers – especially those in low-wage jobs – has health insurance through their employer. Time pressures are another issue for workers. However, the work hours offered by employers make it difficult for employees to match their preferred and their actual hours of work. Low-wage workers face an array of challenges that companies rarely consider. The lack of paid time off in many of these jobs leaves parents with no way to cope with a sick child or a breakdown in child care arrangements without jeopardizing their jobs. Even dual-career couples find that it is the family that must make most of the adaptations when it comes to meeting the demands of work and family – giving priority to one career over the other or giving up a full-time job for a part-time one to cope with the job at home because flexible scheduling options are not available. Most companies have adopted work/life policies and practices to a limited extent, or not at all. Yet, models for increasing the options for working families do exist, and companies as well as families can adapt. The essays in this book point the way forward.

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