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This week we've been talking about flexible workplaces. A lot of the focus is on an elite cubical culture, people who could work from Starbucks on laptops and Blackberries. But what about low-wage and hourly workers who actually have to be at the store or the factory or nursing home? They often face the most rigid schedules, and many of them are workers who really need flexibility. A high number of them are single moms. NPR's Jennifer Ludden concludes our series.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: On August 10th, 2005, Vickie Underwood was nearing the end of her shift, overseeing the production run at a printing plant near Atlanta.

Ms. VICKIE UNDERWOOD (Printing Plant Worker): At the time, I had been working at the plant for over 22 years with an unblemished work record, had never had an infraction.

LUDDEN: When she got off at 3:00 that afternoon, Underwood needed to hurry home to register her kids at two different schools and sign up the youngest for aftercare. The county was holding a one-time all-day registration, 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., to accommodate working parents which is ironic, considering what happened at 2:00, with an hour to go in Underwood's shift.

Ms. UNDERWOOD: I was asked to work three hours mandatory overtime. And I'd mentioned to them that I had to register my kids for school, and they told me that I couldn't leave.

LUDDEN: Now, Underwood had worked last-minute overtime dozens of times before, but on this day she said no. Since school registration is mandatory, she didn't really think she'd get in trouble. In fact, her bosses skipped right over any disciplinary measure. They fired her.

Ms. UNDERWOOD: My family was like: Huh? I mean, what happened? How could something like this happen? And it was almost like, no, they had to fire her for something else other than her kid.

LUDDEN: Underwood fought a year without pay before finally getting her job back, and she was lucky. She had a union to back her up.

Experts say cases like this happen a lot. Consider what so many low-wage and hourly workers face: schedules posted just days in advance, rotating schedules, unexpected overtime some days, while other days they can show up only to be told it's slow, go home with no pay.

Ms. JOAN WILLIAMS (University of California): I always say, there's a lot of flexibility in those jobs, but it's called quitting.

LUDDEN: Joan Williams heads the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California. She says it all adds up to being on call almost at will.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And we're certainly familiar with this at the top of the income heap with executives, investment bankers and lawyers. But a recent study showed that even for minimum-wage jobs, employers put a premium on someone who says, oh, I'm always available.

LUDDEN: So in today's 24/7 economy, how can a low-wage workplace be family-friendly? To answer that, work life Expert Ellen Kossek went to a chain of Michigan grocery stores.

(Soundbite of cash register beeping)

Professor ELLEN KOSSEK (Michigan State University): How are you today?

Unidentified Woman: Good, how are you?

LUDDEN: Kossek is a professor at Michigan State University. She's helping conduct a National Institutes of Health study that's taking on the hardest cases when it comes to flex work.

Prof. KOSSEK: Every job, even an hourly job, can have some flexibility.

LUDDEN: Kossek says it starts with making sure managers understand what their employees are up against.

She had managers in half the grocery stores sit through a computer training program on flexibility. Then she asked them to be emotionally available. That's easier than it sounds.

Prof. KOSSEK: You wouldn't believe this, but managers often don't even say hello to their workers.

LUDDEN: And that makes a difference if they say hello?

Prof. KOSSEK: Oh yes, just saying hi in the morning. How are you doing? Another behavior is role modeling. Think about it if you work for a workaholic or someone who acts like they don't have a family, you feel reluctant to talk about your own personal needs.

LUDDEN: So the managers in this study would talk about how, say, they were leaving early one day to see their kids' game. And they'd solicit family talk from their staff.

Tina Stachowicz is a customer service manager who took part.

Ms. TINA STACHOWICZ (Customer Service Manager): We'd have one question, like, you know, if you're asking about, you know, their family or their sporting events with the younger ones, school, how's school going, that type of thing.

LUDDEN: Every time Stachowicz and the other managers did this or whenever they helped someone resolve a conflict, maybe by switching around the schedule, they'd note it on a piece of paper.

The NIH wanted to know whether this kind of flexibility at work can improve employee health. Kossek says the Michigan experiment suggests it can.

Prof. KOSSEK: You had better physical health reports, you had better sleep quality, you had higher job satisfaction.

LUDDEN: And yes, you felt less stress over work-life conflicts.

The NIH researchers are expanding their study to a group of nursing homes, hoping to convince companies it's in their best interest to be accommodating and that it's just not that hard.

Kossek says it could mean posting schedules farther in advance and making it easier for workers to trade shifts or cross-training more people for the same job or simply easing rules on cell-phone use.

Prof. KOSSEK: So could a cashier, could she have a five minute break where she could call a kid, even if it wasn't when her official break was, but when she knew the bus got home?

Ms. TINA BURGESS (Office Worker): All done?

Unidentified Man: Have a good day. It's all locked up back here.

Ms. BURGESS: All right. Thanks a lot.

Unidentified Man: Thank you.

LUDDEN: At this Family Fare grocery south of Grand Rapids, Tina Burgess worked part time for 13 years. Shortly after the flexibility study, a full-time front office job opened up. Burgess wanted the benefits that came with that, but there was a problem: the job started at 5:00 a.m. Her husband left for work at 5:30, so Burgess needed to be home to see her two boys off to school. Her manager worked it out.

(Soundbite of dial tone and dialing)

LUDDEN: Burgess still comes in at 5:00, but her sons keep their cell phones on their pillows, and every morning at 7:00 she calls to wake them.

Mr. JORDAN BURGESS (Son): Hey Mom.

Ms. BURGESS: Hey Jordan.

Mr. BURGESS: How are you?

Ms. BURGESS: I'm good. Hey, Aaron's not answering his phone, so you want to get up?

Mr. BURGESS: Yep.

Ms. BURGESS: Okay. Don't go back to sleep.

LUDDEN: At 7:15, after she's readied the cash registers and brewed the free coffee, Burgess uses what would otherwise be her lunch break to slip out and make the short drive home.

Ms. BURGESS: Hello, Aaron.

Mr. AARON BURGESS (Son): Hey.

LUDDEN: While the sleepy boys gather their things in the living room, Burgess packs lunches.

Ms. BURGESS: Would you like a Swiss cake roll or an oatmeal cream pie?

LUDDEN: Then, with a quick I love you, she's back out the door.

Burgess used to drive the boys to school, but her oldest now has his license. She supposes they could manage without her. Still, she's their mom.

Ms. BURGESS: Sometimes in the morning like that, I can kind of get a feel if it's going to be a bad day or something. You know, maybe they want to say something before they go to school. Now, if I wasn't there, they wouldn't be able to say that - and I don't know. It's just very important to me to be able to do that.

LUDDEN: Half an hour after leaving her job, Burgess is back at the store for the rest of her shift.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: You can find out more about that study on how flexible work can improve well-being and explore more of Jennifer's series at our Web site, npr.org. Many of you have commented on the series via Twitter. Share your thoughts at MORNING EDITION.

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