By Manon DeFelice
No longer a rarity or an exception in the American workplace, flexible work is becoming more commonplace and ubiquitous every day. The proof for that is visible from sea to shining sea, especially when you look at the current trend toward flex-work legislation on a city, state, and even federal level.
This is a good thing—because without flexible job opportunities, thousands of qualified candidates are often left out of the workforce. Anyone excluded from the traditional 9-to-5 work scenario (think of many parents, retirees, military spouses, and other diverse candidates) has an opportunity to contribute and earn money via a flex-work arrangement. With unemployment below 5%, and a need for senior level, diverse candidates, it is crucial that we harness this untapped pool of talent.
“The fact that this issue is on the forefront, not just in HR departments but also among public officials, suggests wider recognition that work flexibility deserves a key place in the workplace landscape,” says Emma Plumb, director of 1 Million for Workplace Flexibility (1MFWF), a national initiative advocating for the broader adoption of work flexibility. New laws governing flex work are coming into place so frequently now that 1MFWF has created a regularly updated policy page on its resource-filled website. (Check out what is happening in your state!)
Not all of this is brand-new. Since the mid-1990s, state governments have been implementing telework policies that pertain specifically to state employees. Today, 30 U.S. states have some kind of flex-work policy in place for their government workers—and in 2010 the federal government passed the Telework Enhancement Act, which requires federal agencies to establish telework policies for their employees.
What is new and exciting is that we are starting to see flex-work policies that apply to all workers—not just those employed by the government. “Virtually all of the [flex work] legislation which isn’t specific to government workers has come about over the last three or four years,” says Plumb.
Cities & States That Protect Flex
Several new “right to request” laws let workers request a flexible work arrangement for any reason, without fear of retaliation or retribution from their employer. To this end, Vermont passed its Equal Pay Act in 2014, while New Hampshire passed a comparable bill in 2016.
While these are the only two U.S. states (so far) to enact such legislation, several cities have taken similar action. In California, the cities of San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose, and Emeryville have all passed laws within the past few years that support flex work. Seattle passed its Secure Scheduling Act in 2016, and New York City has a few laws in place to protect flexible workers—including a Freelance Isn’t Free law that ensures freelancers will be paid, and a series of Fair Work Week bills that pertain to fast food and retail workers.
Federal Laws Weighing In On Flex
The federal government is getting in on the action, proposing three new laws that pertain to workplace flexibility. While it passed in the House in May, the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2017 has not yet come up for a vote in the Senate. “[The law] would allow employers to substitute time off (‘comp time’) for overtime pay under certain conditions,” says Plumb, “so it’s quite different from other flexibility legislation—and some warn that it’s not really about flexibility at all.” (The main concern is that it may be a way for companies to avoid shelling out overtime pay, and not a true win for flex workers.)
Democratic lawmakers have recently reintroduced two different “right to request” legislations—the Flexibility For Working Families Act and the Schedules That Work Act—but it may be a while before either one comes up for consideration by the House and Senate.
What does this all mean in the grand scheme of the American workplace? “The uptick in interest in work flexibility on the policy side can only be a good thing, because it demonstrates that folks are talking about work flexibility and thinking about the best ways to advance it,” says Plumb.
Flexibility is certainly a buzzword around the water cooler these days at many companies—and among lawmakers, too. Hopefully, with all of this movement towards a flexible workforce, employees will feel protected when approaching their employers about a flex schedule. Check out these tips on how to negotiate for flexibility with your employer.
“For work flexibility to be widely adopted, we need to normalize it as a standard way of doing business,” adds Plumb. “Having people talking, one way or another, about how to ask for flexibility and how to encourage companies to formalize their programs is a key step forward.”