- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2004

Much has changed in the 100 or so years since Upton Sinclair exposed the deplorable working conditions once commonplace in many American industries. The modern American workplace is a far cry from “the Jungle” described in Sinclair’s famous book.

Even though workers now enjoy safety and job-related protections unknown a century ago, some contemporary labor leaders like Karen Nussbaum of the AFL-CIO argue that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Ms. Nussbaum, who founded 925 (the National Association of Working Women), says today’s workplace is as indifferent to many workers’ family responsibilities as that of a century ago.

“The time crunch created by their dual ‘family’ and ‘work’ roles leaves most workers worrying that they do neither job well,” she says. “It is a crisis that tears many families apart.”

Indeed, research by University of Maryland sociologist Harriet Presser shows separation and divorce are more common among married couples who work long hours, especially when one spouse works nights, rotating shifts, or at times opposite the other spouse (as this leaves the couple little shared free time).

Author Jerome Segal believes mandatory overtime also contributes to work-family tensions. “Often, employers lay off workers, and then force others to work large amounts of overtime,” Mr. Segal writes. “They do so to avoid paying benefits to more workers.”

Nearly a third of all American workers regularly put in more than 40 hours of work a week, according to Penn State economist Lonnie Golden. And almost 1 in 5 routinely work more than 50 hours a week.

“The damage done by involuntary overtime becomes apparent in [a recent] Cornell University survey,” the economist notes. “Workers reporting high pressure to work overtime experienced double the work injuries suffered by those who were not.”

Apart from not demanding unwarranted overtime work, employers can help ease some tensions between jobs and families by adopting flexible policies (like job-sharing, flex-time, and home-based work) that make it easier for workers to meet both job and family needs.

Not surprisingly, American workers strongly support such flexible practices. In fact, a national poll by Wirthlin Worldwide found a resounding 87 percent of Americans agree that, “Businesses should voluntarily do more to help strengthen their employees’ marriages by offering flex-time/job-sharing/home-based work options.”

Far from being “giveaway” programs, family-friendly workplace policies actually lower career burnout, reduce job turnover, ease interpersonal conflict and enhance worker productivity. In other words, flexible work policies are good for the bottom line

William Pollack of Harvard University reports raising employee satisfaction by 20 percent sometimes boosts company financial performance more than 40 percent. A recent DePaul University study found the financial performance of the “100 Best Corporate Citizens of 2002” was “significantly better” than the average company listed among the S&P; 500. This year’s top honoree in Fortune magazine’s “List of Best Places to Work” — Smuckers — has doubled its stock value in the last five years.

In a healthy society, employment should enhance family life, not impede it. As the technology and communications revolutions continue reshaping the American workplace, the time has come for a new workplace revolution to build on the one Upton Sinclair and others helped usher in a century ago. This new revolution will enable more family-oriented workers to meet both their personal and their professional responsibilities.

Matt Daniels is an attorney and political scientist who founded the Alliance for Marriage, a nonpartisan, multicultural organization dedicated to ensuring more children are raised in a home with a mother and a father.

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