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Small Business

The Unbending Need for Flexibility

Ann Bookman is the executive director of the MIT Workplace Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. A decade ago, President Clinton appointed Bookman to direct the bipartisan congressional commission charged with studying the impact of the Family & Medical Leave Act. She continues to study leave policies, including California's Family Rights Act, which went into effect last summer and makes workers eligible for six weeks of partially paid family leave. The leaves will be funded by an employee payroll deduction, expected to average $27 per worker per year.

SmallBiz contributor Jill Hamburg Coplan recently spoke with Bookman about leave policies and how they affect small businesses and their employees. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.

Q: The Bush Administration has a federal paid-leave proposal, yet you don't support it. Why is that?

A: In that proposal, hourly workers working overtime would get comp time instead of being paid time-and-a-half. There has been a huge outcry against this, led by the labor movement (see BW Online, 9/29/04, "An Employer's Guide to Overtime Rules"). Many unionized workers rely on their overtime pay and if they can't get it, they'll have to take a second job to sustain a family. For me, the fundamental question is: Who is actually controlling a worker's time?

Work-and-family research has shown the importance of flexibility, meaning giving workers control of their time at work. Ask workers what their No. 1 unmet need is and they'll say, 'I need more flexibility in my schedule to pick up a child at school or take an elderly parent to the doctor.' People want to work. They need their jobs and they enjoy their jobs, but they need more control over their time. When you use comp time as a way to institute flexibility, you don't meet the basic need of workers to have flexibility at the time that they need it. And some workers may not even be in position to accumulate comp time.

Q: Are there proposals in the pipeline that you consider better?

A: We've just begun a period of experimentation with California's law. You'll begin to see multiple schemes for how to do this in other states and in different kinds of companies. There won't be a one-size-fits-all model. One new idea is to allow workers to use their own paid sick leave to care for sick family members. It makes a lot of sense and is a way to introduce some paid family leave into small businesses.

Q: What are some of the other programs companies are exploring?

A: Another idea being tried is shared sick leave, in which workers can donate their unused sick days to co-workers who need it. It's effective and builds camaraderie, which is always a good thing. And it puts control in the hands of workers. Temporary disability insurance has been used very effectively in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Hawaii, and California. Historically, it only covered a family disability related to pregnancy. But its purposes can be expanded.

Q: What does paid leave offer a small business?

A: Research shows that a good leave policy tells employees the employer cares. That enhances morale, commitment, and productivity. Once it's set up, it's not the burden that critics say it is, and the benefits far outweigh the costs.

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