Work flexibility a win-win

Is it too soon to suggest what the Iowa Legislature should discuss in its next session?

If you, like me, think it isn’t, then I propose we ask our lawmakers to stop squabbling over equal pay and minimum-wage hikes (at least for now) and turn their eyes toward Vermont.

As of January, Vermont business owners are required by law to consider worker requests for flexibility such as job sharing, working from home or alternative schedules. The law protects the workers making such requests from retaliation.

It is essentially a legally protected conversation that can have a tremendous impact on single parents, those tasked with caring for an elderly relative or families stretched thin due to child care costs.

While the idea is fairly unique in the United States, several European countries, such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom, have such laws on the books.

A key provision within the law is that businesses need not grant the request if doing so would create added costs for the employer, or if the employer can show a detrimental impact on business quality or performance. It does require, however, that business owners listen and consider such requests “in good faith.”

Advocates of flexible work schedules point to lowered rates of absenteeism and employee turnover as reasons businesses should support the measure. Studies have also showed workers provided such considerations to have increased productivity.

For those concerned with wage inequality, it is worth noting that women, especially mothers, are most often the demographic benefiting from these laws. Women workers who are provided greater flexibility often stay in the work force for longer periods and do not tend to earn less than their male counterparts.

The law also benefits and equalizes women in other ways. According to a 2013 University of Texas study, women routinely are turned down for work flexibility more often than men in similar work roles. The study gauged how 76 managers reacted to flextime requests of hourly-wage pharmacy clerks and higher-status chief pharmacists. In each subset, and regardless of the reasons given for the flextime, women were far less likely to have their request granted.

The group the least likely to be granted such a request were women earning the lowest incomes, and presumably the ones who could benefit most from flexibility to better care for families or pursue professional development.

Across the genders, the practical outcome of these laws has been a closing of the wage gap, higher overall productivity levels and less costs associated with employee turnover and training.

Frankly, it looks like a win-win situation to me. When does the next session begin?