Americans want an economy that provides diverse opportunities. That’s because people have different goals: Some aspire to reach the executive suite, others just want a steady paycheck, to start their own small business, or customized money-making opportunities that help them support their families, but allow them to focus on other priorities.
Flexibility and having a diversity of work options were important before coronavirus hit. Now, with record numbers out of work (and women were disproportionately hit with job losses), they are absolutely critical.
Women, in particular, are likely to hear a lot about workplace flexibility during campaign season, but they should be warned that some policymakers misunderstand what workplace flexibility really means. Ironically, some see flexibility as something the government can mandate and want to impose their own one-size-fits-all, “flexible” employment regime on everyone.
Take Joe Biden’s newly released Agenda for Women. Undoubtedly his campaign knows that “flexibility” is a word that people (and especially prized suburban female voters) like. The campaign document has a line item “Support workers’ ability to have fair and flexible schedules,” which certainly sounds nice. But the actual policies being advanced under that banner would outlaw certain work relationships. Biden wants to eliminate the option of jobs that use just-in-time scheduling, claiming that they are unfair to workers who have to schedule childcare and aren’t guaranteed income.
Certainly those positions aren’t something that every worker wants, but some people don’t mind unpredictable shifts. Shouldn’t they be allowed to take those jobs if they think it’s their best option?
Similarly the Biden campaign document says part-time workers should be treated “with dignity.” Everyone can agree with that sentiment, but presumably that means requiring companies to offer part-time workers benefits similar to what full-time employees earn. Again, that sounds nice, but like other mandates, it would make it more expensive to hire part-time workers. Businesses faced with those new costs will eliminate part-time positions and hire fewer workers. That’s bad news for anyone who prefers a part-time schedule, which includes many young people, but also many moms.
Jobs come with tradeoffs, a reality that’s missing from this agenda. The campaign document notes: “When parents choose to take a more flexible job, they are generally penalized by earning far less per hour than if they worked in jobs with inflexible and long hours.” But a more accurate way of understanding this phenomenon is that workers who accept jobs with inflexible hours are paid a premium because fewer people want those kinds of inflexible jobs. If employers aren’t able to differentiate between positions and pay extra to workers who don’t require flexibility, then staffing will become difficult and expensive. This is a problem not just for businesses, but for consumers. We will have to pay more for essentially all services in Biden’s less flexible employment regime—and across-the-board higher prices hurt people with lower incomes most.
Flexibility is great, but not all professions are equally able to offer flexibility to workers. Some businesses need to make sure that they have a certain number of in-person staff on the job at specific times or they cannot function. Ambulances need to have emergency personnel on board to serve the public. Same with hospitals and other medical facilities. This is also true for construction sites, which need enough qualified workers to actually be there to safely operate their equipment, as well as restaurants, grocery stores, and many other stores and services.
That’s ok, since while flexibility is important to many, it isn’t equally important to everyone. Having a diversity of work options, with a range of characteristics and work relationships, is key to a functioning labor market.
Biden’s Agenda for Women would seek to take away this diversity and ensure that essentially all income-earning opportunities look the same. A similar mentality was reflected in the PRO Act, passed by House Democrats, which would do to the entire country what the infamous AB5 law did in California by severely restricting people’s ability to work as contractors. The California law has left tens of thousands of people out of work and scrambling for jobs. It is the exact opposite of flexibility but an attempt to shoehorn people back into a 9-to-5 work model of a bygone era.
Women be warned: Flexibility is a term often used incorrectly by those who think that their vision of what a flexible work relationship should be imposed on everyone. Women know otherwise.