State of the US Workplace: Good and Bad News

As the United States moves slowly out of the worst recession it has experienced since the Great Depression, how have employers responded?

The ongoing National Study of Employers -- a study of employers with 50 or more employees conducted by the Families and Work Institute (FWI) in partnership with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) -- reveals five surprising trends between 2008 (and in some cases 2005) and 2014.

Trend #1: The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act has leveled the playing field -- 12 weeks has become the norm for leaves; at the same time, longer leaves are less available.

With the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993, employers are required to provide least 12 weeks of unpaid, job-guaranteed leave for childbirth, adoption, foster care placement, a serious personal medical condition or care of a child or spouse with a serious medical condition to employees who have worked at least 1,250 hours during the preceding year. This law, however, exempts employers if they have fewer than 50 employees within a 75-mile radius of all worksites.

As shown in Figure 1, 12 weeks of leave has become the norm among those employers covered by the law, although paternity leave lags behind the other three types of leave we assessed. Here business practice has not kept pace with changes in men, whom studies by Families and Work Institute reveal are more involved with the care of their children than in the past.

On the other hand, the average maximum amount of time off has declined among all employers -- those covered by FMLA and those not covered -- except for maternity leaves, as shown in Table 1.

Trend #2: Demographics are destiny though legal and attitudinal shifts have an impact, too!

Although business practice has not kept pace with changes in men, it's been more responsive to the aging in America. Of the four kinds of elder care assistance the National Study of Employers (NSE) assesses, three have increased between 2008 and 2014, as shown in Figure 2.   

Although time off without jeopardy didn't increase, it is already quite high.

Two other changes -- increased support for nursing mothers and increases in health care coverage for unmarried partners -- reflect the interplay between societal and public policy shifts.
  • In 2008, 49 percent of employers provided private space and storage facilities to allow women who are nursing to continue to do so by expressing milk. In 2014, 74 percent do so (even though we added a new requirement that the space be somewhere other than a bathroom).
This shift reflects the research findings and the commensurate public view that breastfeeding is good for children and mothers as well as a legal requirement in the Affordable Care Act.

In 2008, 29 percent of employers offered health insurance coverage for unmarried partners of employees; that number has climbed to 43 percent in 2014.

This shift reflects significant changes in the nation's approach to couple relationships, especially same-sex couples with the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013.

Trend #3: Smaller employers are big leaders in providing flexibility and in not increasing co-pays in health insurance.

In 2014, small employers (50-99 employees nationwide) are more likely than large employers (1,000 or more employees nationwide) to allow
employees to:
  • change starting and quitting times within some range of hours (33 percent versus 20 percent);
  • work some regular paid hours at home occasionally (11 percent versus 4 percent);
  • have control over when to take breaks (66 percent versus 52 percent);
  • return to work gradually after childbirth or adoption (53 percent versus 37 percent);  and
  • take time off during the workday to attend to important family or personal needs without loss of pay (52 percent versus 36 percent).
Likewise, small employers are less likely to have required employees to increase co-pays for personal health insurance premiums (31 percent versus 51 percent) and for family health insurance premiums (32 percent versus 54 percent).

Smaller employers have been leaders in the previous iterations of this study in providing employee support.

Trend #4: Telecommuting is on the rise.

Telecommuting is not "dead" as some headlines proclaimed after Yahoo and Best Buy eliminated it. In fact, today more employers are providing occasional telecommuting (67 percent) for at least some employees than in 2008 (50 percent).

This increase is in keeping with our finding that flexibility for full-time employees is growing. In addition to occasional telecommuting, employers in 2014 are more likely than employers in 2008 to provide:
  • control over breaks (from 84 percent to 92 percent);
    • control over overtime hours (from 27 percent to 45 percent); and
    • time off during the workday when important needs arise (from 73 percent to 82 percent).
    Conversely, employers in 2014 have reduced the options that involve employees spending significant time away from full-time work. These include:
    • sharing jobs (29 percent to 18 percent);
    • working part year on an annual basis (27 percent to 18 percent); and
    • flex career options such as sabbaticals (38 percent to 28 percent) and career breaks for personal or family responsibilities (from 64 percent to 52 percent).
    Trend #5: The reason for providing employee supportive programs is the retention of employees.
    • When asked in an open-ended question, why they provide flexibility and child and elder care assistance, employers overwhelming cited retention (35 percent).
    Yet, while supervisors are encouraged to find solutions for employees with family needs that work for both employees and the organization, there also appears to be declining support for creating a culture of flexibility -- with less emphasis on results versus face time and on rewards for those who manage flexibly, as shown in Table 2.