More than 60 percent of Americans have jobs that pay by the hour. One-quarter to one-third of them are low-wage jobs like waiting tables, working at nursing homes and standing behind the counter at the Rite-Aid. These employees often face unpredictable hours and less-than-full-time paychecks. And if these employees also happen to be parents, the instability and inflexibility of their work life is likely having negative effects on the health and education of their kids.
Yesterday, at a New America event titled "Flexible Work Arrangements and Low-Wage Work," several researchers laid these facts on the table. It was another reminder of the interdependence of policies related to health, education, the economy and the American workforce. And it highlighted why working families often struggle to find appropriate child care, to care for sick children or to find ways to participate in their children's education.
Parents who work until 9 p.m. at Target cannot pick up children when child care centers close at 5:30 p.m. Parents who have no control over when they work don't have the ability to ask for a shift in hours to attend a sudden meeting with the school principal. Some parents, like those who work in hospitality or retail, are told as late as Wednesday what their schedule will be for the following week. With that kind of unpredictablity, they have no way to plan for a routine dentist appointment or to chaperone field trips, let alone be a continual presence for bedtime reading or homework help.
A June 9 article in The American Prospect -- "Outside the 9 to 5" -- also makes the case for remembering the children of parents in these kinds of jobs. Not only are workers hurt by unstable and unpredictable work hours, but "children's development and well-being are also at risk," argue the three sociologists -- Janet Gornick, Harriet Presser and Caroline Batzdorf -- who wrote the article.
"Preschool children whose parents work nonstandard hours," they write, "are less likely to be cared for in formal child-care settings that may provide important school-readiness experiences."
Several countries in Europe have support systems for childcare or more flexible scheduling options for parents who work night shifts or non-standard hours. (Some child care centers in Finland, for example, offer 24-hour care.) Not so in the United States. "American public policy is almost entirely silent" on this issue, the article says.
Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, echoed this sentiment in her remarks at yesterday's forum. It would help, she said, to "have our childcare and education systems acknowledge that these schedules exist." (In our series on Illinois preschool programs, for example, educators in Chicago discovered that parents were willing to try out late afternoon schedules for their children in part because they meshed better with some service and hospitality industry work schedules.)
But getting employers to offer more flexible policies and work arrangements is important too. The forum's panelists talked about a few companies, such as Bright Horizons Child Care Center, that actually improve their bottom lines when they offer more flexibility to their employees. Also noted was the CitiSales study, led by Jennifer Swanberg at the University of Kentucky, that showed how companies can thrive and improve the quality of life for their low-wage workers.
In a recession it can be difficult to imagine that a company's energies could be focused on helping employees -- particularly when many people simply feel lucky to have a job no matter what the cost to their family life. But if we want to help children in these working families, we have to pull our heads out of the sands of short-term thinking and consider new options. (At the very least, companies could use better scheduling systems to provide employees with ways to request shifts in hours and see their schedules a month in advance.) For more ideas, see yesterday's forum, now in video here on our site and on YouTube. And keep your eyes open for proposals from the public policy initiative at Georgetown University -- Workplace Flexibility 2010 -- which is dedicated to developing a range of public policy solutions over the coming year.
Photo courtesy Leo Reynolds via Creative Commons License on Flickr