MY SIDE OF THE STREET: Workers have lives away from work

A large number of the businesses in Humboldt County employ fewer than 10 people, and those workers are used to missing out on a lot of the perks others take for granted. They are MYSIDEOFSTREETless likely to earn benefits such as sick days and vacation, seldom get medical insurance and may have little opportunity for advancement. Worst of all, they are often subject to the whims of unreasonable bosses who have no interest in their employees’ lives away from work.
That’s not universally true; plenty of small business owners and managers are understanding and helpful. But others make Simon Legree look like a model foreman. Modern families juggle child care, elder care and other personal responsibilities along with work.
Often the lowest paid jobs go to parents who struggle to arrange affordable child care. Last minute schedule changes can break down a carefully balanced system. Other workers may have dependent adults at waiting at home, making unplanned overtime unwelcome.
Only about 10 percent of the businesses in San Francisco employ 10 or more workers, but that represents about 90 percent of employees. David Chiu and other members of the Board of Supervisors recently proposed an ordinance which would help some of them better work out time conflicts between work and personal lives. It would only cover workers at businesses employing 10 or more workers.
Employees who care for children or elders would gain a legal right to ask for flexible scheduling such as different hours, a part-time schedule, working from home or job sharing. That’s the right to ask, not necessarily the right to receive the accommodation. Only employees who had worked for the company at least six months would be covered.
Employers who turned down the request would have to state a reason in writing, and the acceptable reasons are pretty broad. If the change would cost any money, or cause any disruption in business or make it hard to meet customer demand, the request could be refused. The employee could appeal, first to the employer, then to the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement.
Eligible employees would also have a right to ask for a work schedule to be posted two weeks in advance, so they could make plans for dependent care. That all sounds pretty mild to me. Those are things which decent bosses try to do without any pressure.
But not all bosses are decent. Some seem unaware that slavery has been outlawed in the United States. One business owne – who wouldn’t be affected because she has fewer than 10 workers – said it was an insult even to be asked to accommodate an employee’s needs.
I’ll bet her employees are worried about being fired if they let on that they even have private lives. The main point of this proposed ordinance is to specifically outlaw retaliation. It’s about insisting that employers at least pretend to consider the request, and that’s still too much for her and others like her.
I wonder if she wears Prada. If she has children or elderly relatives, I suspect she hires – and abuses – people to care for them. I doubt anyone she employes earns a fair wage for the work.
The supervisors backing this proposed ordinance seem to be thinking mostly of poor workers, but family friendly policies are good for every organization. The University of California found that women earned half of the doctoral degrees awarded by the university, but received only a quarter of the tenure track jobs. There were actually some pretty good programs in place, but almost nobody used them.
Inquiry established that few women knew they could ask for accommodations such as teaching part time and pausing the clock on their tenure eligibility. Almost no men used paternity leave and there was a strong stigma attached for both men and women who temporarily eased their 110 percent commitment to work to start a family.
By improving the benefits a little and promoting them a lot, the university was able to turn around its dismal statistics on retaining graduate students and faculty. It has become well known for family friendly policies that help academic couples succeed at home as well as the classroom. That is now a recruiting tool which helps attract promising new prospects.
I’d be the first to say doing the right thing is its own reward, but I like to see it rewarded in other ways as well. Decent employers who try to accommodate their workers’ needs can generally count on increased loyalty, lower turnover and higher customer satisfaction. That’s true in Humboldt County and everywhere else.
(Elizabeth Alves has noticed that often when business owners lobby for flexibility, they mean the freedom to mistreat their workers with impunity. Comments and suggestions are welcome care of the Press or to mysidestreet@gmail.com.)