In the News

How to Get to Work-Life Balance
DMI Blog, July 28, 2009

By Amy Traub

Workers are parents. Workers are caregivers for their elderly and disabled adult loved ones. And yes, workers get sick sometimes and have to stop working and take care of themselves. The question is when our workplaces are going to acknowledge these all-too-obvious facts and provide basic benefits that let working people handle their non-work lives without going broke.

The answer, of course, is that we get what's known as "work-life balance" or "family-friendly" benefits - like paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, and child care benefits - when we oblige employers to give them to us. Employees with in-demand skills do that now, and the good news is, employers are generally not scaling back workplace flexibility policies during this recession. (See this new study from the Families and Work Institute for the first piece of good employment news I've read in a while.) But what about the rest of us? We've got two complementary and mutually reinforcing ways to make sure the boss lets Daddy stay home with Sally when she gets the flu. The first is government regulation: in recent weeks, I've made the case that the nation should set up a national system of paid family leave insurance and mandate that employers provide paid sick days.

The second way to ensure that our work lives give ground when necessary to the exigencies of the rest of our lives is to organize a union and put family-friendly benefits on the bargaining table. A recent report by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education and the Labor Project for Working Families highlights the effectiveness of this approach. Among the findings:

As the last example suggests, unionization and government action complement each other, with public policy granting protection to a broader range of working people, and unions increasing the ability of their members to fully exercise the rights they're given by the law. More of us will get more balance in our work and lives if the nation pursues both routes aggressively: make it easier to join unions while also fighting for paid leave and other "balance" policies for everyone. Since unions themselves are among the most dedicated advocates of regulations providing family-friendly benefits for all employees, these strategies are also mutually reinforcing.