The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) heard testimony May 10, 2012, on the challenges to work and family life for people lacking employer paid leave and other workplace flexibility options.
Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) member Juanita Phillips, HR director at Intuitive Research and Technology Corp., was among four panelists appearing before the committee that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairs.
Phillips pointed to SHRM’s efforts on behalf of workplace flexibility— the multiyear partnership it formed with the Families and Work Institute in February 2011 and the two groups’ nationwide “When Work Works” initiative. Additionally, SHRM co-chairs the National Coalition to Protect Family Leave, a broad-based group dedicated to protecting the integrity of the Family and Medical Leave Act.
“Employees should have the ability to take time off to attend to their own or a close family member’s health or to seek or provide help related to domestic violence,” Phillips said in prepared remarks. However, SHRM wants the federal government to encourage, not mandate, employer paid leave.
Phillips described the generous benefits her employer provides to its 243 employees, including scheduling flexibility for full-time exempt workers, flex options for its retirees who support specific customers, paid time off, leave for veterans to accommodate Veterans Administration appointments, 10 floating holidays and parental leave.
Those practices have helped the engineering and analytical services firm in Huntsville, Ala., achieve a 92 percent retention rate and garner recognition, the Alabama SHRM State Council member said. Her employer was named by the Great Place to Work Institute in 2011 as the No. 2 Best Small Company to Work for in the U.S.
“What we do not want is a government-imposed paid leave mandate to take away our competitive edge over other employers,” she said.
The same flexibility approaches Intuitive uses will not work for all positions and all employees, and SHRM has “strong concerns” about the proposed “Healthy Families Act” (S. 984), Phillips said, referring to legislation Harkin introduced in May 2011.
Provisions in the Healthy Families Act (HFA) include requiring certain employers that employ 15 or more people during 20 or more workweeks a year to permit them to earn at least one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. The paid sick time would be capped at 56 hours—approximately seven work days—unless the employer chooses to set a higher limit.
It would allow employees to use that time to care for, or seek medical attention for, certain family members and themselves and to handle issues related to domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.
Seven Paid Days?
During the hearing, Harkin emphasized his belief in the need to establish at the federal level a minimum number days for employer-paid time off. In the scheme of things, the maximum of seven paid days of annual sick leave he proposes in the legislation, Harkin said, is not much for employers to absorb.
Phillips’ description of her employer’s abundant flex options were in stark contrast to panelist Kimberley Ortiz, a retail worker from the Bronx in New York City and single mother to 4-year-old and 6-year-old sons, both with autism.
Ortiz captured the senators’ attention as she told of her hardscrabble life working in a gift store at the Statue of Liberty for almost five years, where even as assistant manager she made only $9.25 an hour and had an unsympathetic manager who cut her hours when child care issues disrupted her schedule.
Before her children were born, Ortiz said, she volunteered to work early and stay late and knew her weekly schedule only three or four days ahead of time. Once her children were born, she needed full-time hours that were more conducive to family life, she said. She said she was labeled “unreliable” when she no longer could report to work at 5:30 a.m. or when her shift couldn’t be adjusted, such as the time she called from a hospital emergency room where one of her children was being treated.
“My managers were not flexible with me, even though I had been extremely flexible with them,” Ortiz said.
Despite her seniority and her desire to work full time, her hours were cut from 45 hours per week to 15 to 20 hours per week. She was ineligible to qualify for Medicaid, as her company’s medical coverage and co-payments were beyond the reach of her paycheck.
“I need a clear, consistent schedule and reasonable work hours that would allow me to still be an active, engaged parent in my children’s lives,” Ortiz told the committee. She pointed to a survey by the Retail Action Project that found that of 436 retail workers surveyed in New York in 2011, only 17 percent had a set work schedule.
One of the potential outcomes of the hearing was the suggestion by Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., ranking member on the HELP Committee, that the federal government experiment with paid leave and flex options with its federal contractors before expanding these to the private sector.
Enzi pointed out that the Statue of Liberty where Ortiz worked is part of the National Park Service and uses federal contractors.
“We’re not even imposing [these ideas] on the federal contractors,” Enzi said. “That might be the logical place to start,” he said, an idea that Harkin and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., endorsed.
Other panelists were Ann O’Leary, J.D., director of the Children and Families Program at the Center for the Next Generation in San Francisco, and Judith L. Lichtman, senior advisor, National Partnership for Women and Families in Washington, D.C.
“The women and the mothers in this country need better support. They need a better deal in terms of their work life and their family life,” Harkin said as the hearing ended. “If we really love our mothers, it’s not enough to give flowers and a card. We need to do more than that.”
Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.