Balancing Act

When companies promote work-life balance for low-wage workers, everyone wins

| January-February 2012

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    Mario Wagner /

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A small group of Chicago clothing retailers is challenging convention by offering their low-wage, mostly part-time workers a list of perks normally reserved for management: flexible hours, time off when needed, and a locked-in schedule of shifts that allows workers to plan a full month, rather than a few days, in advance.

If researchers are correct, higher worker satisfaction at those stores will boost employee morale, retention rates, and productivity, pushing labor costs down and revenues up. Meanwhile, employees will report reduced stress, better physical and mental heath, and stronger relationships with family and friends.

“It’s really a win-win,” says Susan Lambert, an associate professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. Lambert is among a handful of people exploring one of the most overlooked areas of labor policy: work-life balance at the bottom of the pay scale.

The flexible workplace benefits the professional class often takes for granted—maternity and sick leave, time off for family emergencies, control over work schedules, telecommuting—rarely trickle down the pay ladder. Yet studies show that workers at or near minimum wage are most in need of such benefits. The working poor are more likely to hold down multiple jobs, have greater health care needs, be single parents and caregivers, and have difficulty commuting to their jobs.

While much attention in recent years has focused on minimum wage and so-called living-wage legislation, experts argue that actual wages are less important than the work schedule.

“There’s a reason why so many low-paying jobs have high turnover rates, and it’s not because people don’t want to work,” contends Lambert, who says studies show that about half of all part-time employees would prefer more work hours. And yet, two-thirds of the retail stores in one study had employee turnover rates in excess of 80 percent. People need to care for sick children, go to the doctor, “the kinds of things that shouldn’t cost you your job,” she says.

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