San Francisco is considering a new kind of family-friendly workplace policy: Earlier this week, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu introduced a ballot measure that would give employees the right to request a flexible schedule.
The right-to-request law would not mandate that employers provide all workers with the schedules they desire, but it would require that employers set up a process to discuss and negotiate workplace flexibility. An employee could petition his employer to adjust his start time, work part-time, or maybe tele-commute one day a week. The employer wouldn’t have to approve the request if it caused it an “undue hardship,” but if it couldn’t come up with a compelling business reason to deny the request, it would have to agree to it. The hardship could include an increase in costs or a “detrimental effect on the ability to meet customer or client demands,” so it does give employers a lot of wiggle room.
Even with these limitations, this kind of policy has been found to be effective in meeting demand from workers to gain some control over their schedules. The United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia have implemented similar policies and found they worked. In the U.K., for example, lawmakers implemented right-to-request legislation in 2002. Since then, this “soft touch” legislation has been effective in increasing the number of workers with flexible schedules. Even though employers had fairly broad discretion to deny the requests, only 10 percent of requests have been turned down since the law was enacted.
Further, while initially the U.K. law covered only workers with young children under age six, workers with disabled children under age 18, and workers caring for an adult relative, Parliament passed legislation in 2009 to cover all workers with children under the age of 16. More recently, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) — the world’s largest chartered HR and development professional body — has urged the U.K. government to extend the right to request flexibility to all employees. The organization cites “Flexible Working: Provision and Uptake,” a study that found that 70 percent of employers surveyed said flexibility helped recruit better workers and kept employees engaged and motivated. Moreover, less than 5 percent of businesses surveyed reported problems complying with the current right-to-request flexibility law.
Taking a step forward for workers and families is not new for San Francisco. In 2007, it became the first city to guarantee paid sick days for all of its employees. Despite initial resistance and warnings that this policy would hurt local businesses, the city’s economy continued to grow and outpace the surrounding region, demonstrating yet again how worker friendly policies like paid leave, paid sick days, and workplace flexibility need not be at odds with thriving business and economic growth.
Right to request would be an improvement over the current situation in the United States, where an employee can be disciplined for even asking about flexibility or predictability. And this isn’t the first time policymakers have tried to start this conversation — Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced similar legislation, the Working Families’ Flexibility Act, most recently in early 2012 as H.R. 4106 — but let’s hope that this time, the policy is seriously debated and put to the test in the American context.