United States and Europe; closing the gap on flexible working law

Tortoise and hareVermont became the first U.S. state to enact a law requiring employers to consider workers’ requests for a flexible schedule without fear of retaliation. The law, signed by the governor in May, includes a statutory process which requires “good faith” discussions relative to the employee’s needs and the company’s business operations. Despite Vermont’s efforts to make the workplace more accommodating, the United States still lags behind Europe when it comes to flexible work schedules and accommodating family life issues. For example, Vermont is already a decade behind the United Kingdom which passed similar legislation in 2003. The reasons for this are not cut-and-dried either.

President Bill Clinton took the first step in making the United States more worker-friendly by signing the Family Medical Leave Act  into law in 1993. It requires companies with 50 or more employees to allow workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave for child birth, to care for a sick spouse, child or even yourself. Critics say the law doesn’t go far enough because it requires the employees to have worked for the company for at least a year and, according to the New York Times, 40 percent of workers are employed with smaller companies. Most Americans also cannot afford to take unpaid leave. Paid leave via individual company policies is available to only 11 percent of private sector workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The United States, along with Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland, are the only countries in the world that do not offer paid leave for new parents, according to the International Labour Organization. The UK is by far the most generous, allowing 280 paid days for both mother and father. Australia, Spain and the Netherlands also provide both maternal and paternal paid leave. Several more European countries offer only paid maternity leave.

Studies have continually shown that telecommuting and flexible schedules boost both employee morale and production. A Stanford University study published in February found that call center workers were 13 percent more productive when working from a home office. Individual companies like Google, Patagonia and Netflix have adopted very employee-friendly working environment as far as flex time and time off. Chase and some other banks allow mortgage workers to use a Pitney Bowes postage meter, fax machine and laptop to work from home. But there are no laws in place that require employers to offer such benefits in the U.S.

The Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013 was passed by the House of Representatives in May, but has not been taken up by the Senate. The law would allow private sector employees to trade overtime pay for future time off, a benefit federal employees already enjoy. But partisan politics have halted the debate on the bill, with the primary argument against it being that unscrupulous employers would coerce workers into not accepting overtime at all.

A country like Sweden, contrarily, has one of the better flexible scheduling laws in the world. More than 50 percent of employers in Sweden allow workers to come in anytime between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and leave when they’ve completed their eight hours, according to a report on Sweden.se. at least 50 percent of workers in Denmark, Germany, Finland and Norway also have access to come kind of flexible working schedules, according to a 2009 report by the EU European Commission.

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Debbie Kovak is a freelance writer based in New Jersey

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