On Thursday, April 14, I traveled to Chicago to host the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility. This was the 7th Dialogue in a series of ten we’ve hosted around the country following the lead of the March 2010 White House Forum. In Chicago, we brought together educators, workers, flexibility experts, women’s rights leaders, employers and union representatives to discuss the unique challenges and solutions for implementing flexible work arrangements in manufacturing jobs.
Participants at the forum agreed that a one-size fits all approach to flexibility will not work in manufacturing. At Sara Lee Corporation for example, panelist Kathy Bayert, Senior Manager of Organizational Effectiveness said the company’s current approach to hour/shift workers is focused on predictable work scheduling with schedules done in advance, not a few days at a time. However, a possible solution for Sara Lee was to develop relief crews cross-trained with multiple skills to fill in as necessary to accommodate flexibility.
Another innovative way to develop flexible policies is the role thatworkers can play in identifying new programs. I met Ann Flener of the United Steel Workers Women of Steel who believes that local union committees can help create those flexible workplace programs. What a strong message to workers—helping them understand that there is a way to have a voice and to help make decisions. I also met Margie Chambers of the United Auto Workers and also a long-time employee of General Motors. She agreed that it was a strong labor management partnership at GM that was the catalyst for including flexibility in their contracts.
Society is making incredible strides when it comes to workplace flexibility, but there is still so much more that needs to be done.
With women accounting for nearly half of today’s labor force and comprising nearly 30 percent of persons working in the manufacturing industry, we need to develop appropriate and innovative ways to allow these workers the opportunities to effectively manage their work and family lives. In 2010, manufacturing was the fifth largest employment industry in the U.S. with over 14 million workers – of which nearly 4 million were women. Think of it this way: More women work in the manufacturing industry across this country than the total population of 21 states. Without formal workplace flexibility policies adapted to fit the various manufacturing work places, women and men alike, will continue to struggle with balancing work and family.
Research shows that when employers implement flexible work options and programs, ALL employees are better able to manage work and life responsibilities leading to higher morale and ultimately improvements in productivity and the bottom line.
The Women’s Bureau is committed to help working families achieve a better balance between work and family responsibilities. Workplace flexibility is not just a woman’s issue - it is a family issue and it is a national economic issue.
Sara Manzano-Diaz is Director of the U. S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau