Employees Have Made Progress This Year--For That, At Least, I'm Grateful

It’s been a tough year for this country in many ways. A highly divisive election campaign, culminating in a highly divisive election;  sad tidings about the death of so many American icons, from Mohammad Ali to Prince;  a seemingly endless parade of news about shootings and other senseless violence.

So I wondered what there might be to be grateful for this Thanksgiving, and it was frankly comforting to look back and realize there have been a number of significant strides forward in the world of work-life. Employees are, or will soon be, better off in a few small but important ways than they were just a year ago. And while some of the new policies and regulations that make this possible may occasionally seem onerous to business, I hold firmly to the belief that ultimately when employees are better off, employers are, too.

Here is my round-up of good work-life news from 2016:

  • Paid family leave is spreading, both as public policy and at the level of individual employers. In April, California passed legislation increasing benefits under its existing paid family leave law. Around the same time, New York passed the nation’s first family leave law to provide a full 12 weeks of paid, job-protected leave (the law doesn’t go into effect until January of 2018)—bringing to four the total number of states with active paid family leave laws. Cities got into the action as well. A number of local governments enacted policies providing paid leave to their own employees and San Francisco made news by passing a law mandating fully-paid leave for nearly all employees across the city (as opposed to the partially-paid leave mandated by the state.)

Private employers continued their gradual embrace of paid family leave as well. At the start of the year, Hilton introduced two weeks of gender-neutral paid leave as well as ten weeks of paid leave for mothers giving birth—a policy that would be less newsworthy if it weren’t that it applies across the board, to hourly as well as salaried workers. In March, Fidelity expanded its paid maternity leave from 8 weeks to 16, and its paid family leave from 3 to 6 weeks. Around the same time, Etsy announced it had expanded its paid parental leave policy from 12 weeks for mothers and 5 weeks for fathers to 6 months for all, including adoptive parents.

  • Paid sick leave was very much in the news, too. When the good citizens of Arizona and Washington voted it in just a few weeks ago, they brought the number of states requiring at least some form of such leave to seven—plus the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, Chicago, Los Angeles,  San Diego, St. Paul, Spokane, Morristown (New Jersey) and Cook County (Illinois) were just a few of the local governments to jump in with their own legislation—bringing the total to 29 cities and two counties now offering or soon to roll out paid sick leave.
  • Over the past year, eight states plus the District of Columbia have passed legislation raising the minimum wage, including four—Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington—that did so by means of ballot measures during the recent election. In addition, from the start of 2016 through the beginning of August the minimum wage rose in 17 states, in accordance with legislation passed during prior years. (There is some overlap here—4 states and the District of Columbia had increases based on prior laws, but also passed new, more expansive legislation.)
  • Fair scheduling, which gives hourly employees—especially in retail, fast food, and similar industries—an appropriate amount of up-front notice about their shifts, has continued to gain momentum. In 2015, companies such as Gap, Victoria’s Secret, and Abercrombie & Fitch eliminated on-call scheduling, and in 2016 legislation addressing the issue was being considered in several cities around the U.S. While fair scheduling practices can be vital for employees’ ability to find proper child care and meet other commitments (including sometimes working a second job), they can be understandably difficult for employers, so the implementation hasn’t been entirely smooth.
  • In other 2016 work-life news, Massachusetts became the first state to make it illegal to ask about salaries in job interviews. Since the answer to such a question is often used as a basis for a salary offer, and women’s pay history tends to be lower than men’s, this legislation is a great step forward for pay equity.
  • Policies supportive of transgender employees and customers also continued to expand, as Target announced transgender-friendly bathrooms and Kroger became the latest large company to roll out coverage for sex reassignment surgery. (The Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which is based on a voluntary survey of major U.S. companies, shows an increase in the number of companies offering transgender-inclusive health coverage from just 49 in 2009 to 511 in 2016).
  • Finally, here in my home city of New York, we completed the first year of full universal (full-day) pre-K, providing a free, safe learning environment for every child that wanted a seat—50,000 more children than had had access just a couple years before.

These are the work-life wins that stand out for me this past year, but I'm sure I haven't covered them all--what have I missed? What else do we have to be grateful for in these confounding times? And what should we work toward as the year winds to an end, and a new one begins?

Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who works with companies to put together the best possible “great place to work” competition entries and creates compelling, easy-to-read benefits, HR, diversity and general-topic employee communications. Find her at www.robinhardman.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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