The case for a right to request a better work schedule

Improving life for families in the workplace is taking on increasing importance in our 2016 presidential debate.  While the parties have split on paid family leave, there’s another important policy that’s going overlooked that might just be able to draw bipartisan support.

The Democratic candidates for president have uniformly lined up behind extending twelve weeks of paid family leave to workers to care for new children or ailing family members — a benefit guaranteed by every other developed country in the world.

The Republicans, on the other hand, have uniformly lined up against requiring this kind of workplace benefit. Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz both think it’s an unjustifiable new government burden on business.  Sen. Marco Rubio also blasted the Democrats’ “costly federal mandates” and instead proposed a weak tax credit for businesses that would do little to actually expand paid leave to more workers.

Gov. John Kasich too would defer to the employer-based paid leave status quo.  But he also argued we need to think more broadly about workplace flexibility.  “The one thing we need to do for working women is to give them the flexibility to be able to work at home online,” he said. “And we need to accommodate women who want to be at home, having a healthy baby and in fact being involved, however many years they want to take care of the family.”

While paid leave is extremely important, Kasich makes an important point: that there is more to creating a family-friendly workplace than just a few weeks off when a new child is born.  As the New York Times recently put it: “After the first few weeks of a child’s life, working parents have at least 18 more years to juggle work and child rearing.”

There’s a reform growing in popularity that would help parents manage this juggle.  Known as the “right to request,” working parents in countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and New Zealand have a statutory right to ask their employers for flexible work arrangements, such as working from home or changing their hours.  Employers do not have to accept the request, but must consider it in good faith and may only decline it for legitimate business reasons.  These reasons are often specified by statute, and if an employee feels her request was wrongfully denied, she generally has a right to appeal.

These “soft touch” laws impose no financial mandates on business.  Instead, they simply empower workers to seek a family-friendly work schedule without fear of retaliation or baseless rejection by their employers.  And with dual-earner families now the norm, these laws make it easier for parents to carve out some much needed space for family life in their work schedules.

Right to request might employ a soft touch, but it’s far from toothless.  During the first two years of the U.K.’s right to request law, one study found that 14 percent of employees requested a flexible schedule.  Yet employers approved more than 80 percent of these requests.  In fact, most employers are finding the law has a valuable impact on employee retention and morale.

The law has been so successful that the U.K. has repeatedly expanded it: first to cover parents with children of all ages, and again to cover workers caring for ill family members.  Recognizing the value of flexible work for business productivity, the U.K. ultimately extended right to request to all workers in 2014.

These laws are slowly making their way across the Atlantic.  Vermont and San Francisco have both adopted right to request laws.  And in Congress, Sen. Bob Casey and Rep. Carolyn Maloney have introduced the Flexibility for Working Families Act, which would provide a national right to request for working families across the country.

There’s a lot to like in these laws.  Rather than impose financial burdens on business, they facilitate fairer and more even-handed discussions between firms and their employees. Today, only unions and highly sought workers (like Speaker Paul Ryan) enjoy the bargaining power necessary to confidently command quality-of-life accommodations from their employers.  Right to request democratizes workplace flexibility by boosting the standing of all workers.

Right to request also stands for the principle that work life should be subsidiary to family life, and not the other way around.  In an era where work increasingly encroaches on other aspects of our lives, right to request boldly reasserts the primacy of family life.

A reform that empowers workers while promoting family values and preserving employer discretion ought to be the kind of policy that both parties could rally around.  Let’s hope they do so.  The Democrats’ family leave policies are an important protection during a crucial time in a family’s life.  But we ought to go further to even the deck for families throughout their careers by encouraging the kind of job flexibility that brings our workplaces into the twenty-first century.

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