Flexibility - a new agenda for the workplace

Tomorrow promises to be a day of mixed emotions for Mary Beth Geary.

For 10 years she has been making the rounds of 208 homes in our suburban Boston neighborhood, delivering mail with efficiency and a ready smile. But on Thursday, after she slips the last bundle of letters and bills in the last mailbox on her route, Mrs. Geary will bid co-workers at the post office a final goodbye. Then she will head home to her husband and their 3-year-old son and 13-month-old daughter, marking the end of a 15-year career with the US Postal Service.

Geary is sad - "very sad," she says - to be leaving. The rewarding trade-off will be a more normal family life. Her husband, also a postal-service employee, has been caring for the children during the day and working an evening shift.

"We're two ships passing in the night," Geary says ruefully, describing a situation facing countless couples who work split shifts to care for their children.

Now Geary's husband is switching to a day shift. She is taking what she calls a "huge" pay cut to work several evenings a week at a restaurant near their home.

"We're starting anew," she says simply.

The Gearys typify workers in all occupations who face the dual challenge of being caring parents and conscientious workers. Ask what would have made it possible for her to stay on the job, and she says without a moment's pause, "More flexibility." She adds: "If they had part-time carrier positions, it would be awesome. A lot of us would want that."

More flexibility. More part-time positions. Those two wishes echo across the country, the fervent hope of workers torn between parenthood and the need for a paycheck.

Some would also add another benefit to their wish list: paid parental leave. Geary, for example, took five months of unpaid leave after the birth of her son and four months after her daughter was born.

As a sobering confirmation of the state of work in the 21st century, a United Nations study released last weekend shows that Americans log more hours on the job than people in any other industrial nation.

The average American put in 1,978 hours last year, up 36 hours from a decade ago. That represents almost an additional 40-hour week. Americans work nearly 3-1/2 weeks more a year than Japanese employees, and about 12 weeks more than German workers.

Economists attribute the increasing hours to the economic boom of the 1990s, and to the growing ranks of workers eager to impress the boss with what can be called "face time."

Others refer to excessive hours as "presenteeism," the opposite of absenteeism. These workers give up a personal life out of fear of being laid off.

Will the last one to leave the office please turn out the lights?

Whatever the motivating factors driving the trend toward long hours, September is shaping up as a month spotlighting just the kinds of challenges Geary and her counterparts in the corporate world face.

A report called "Integrating Work and Family," to be released next week, calls on political and business leaders to rethink traditional ways of dealing with working-family issues. Produced by the Sloan Work-Family Network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the study notes that workplaces continue to be structured around the image of the "ideal employee who begins work early in adulthood and remains on the job full time for 40 years," taking little or no time off for childbearing or childrearing.

"Most workers today, regardless of gender, have family responsibilities, and most married workers ... have an employed spouse," the report states. "But jobs are still designed as if workers have no family responsibilities."

The study calls for flexible paid family leave as well as reduced and flexible hours. Getting more women in positions of leadership in companies, unions, and government would also help, it says. Although these issues affect women and men, research shows that women in top-level positions give work and family issues a higher priority in decisionmaking.

On Sept. 16 - two days after the report on "Integrating Work and Family" is released - an unrelated two-hour television special, "Juggling Work and Family," will air on PBS. Treating these subjects in prime time could help to push them higher on everyone's agenda.

Already there are signs of potential change in the early fall air. Nationally, a movement for paid parental leave is gaining momentum. In Massachusetts, Acting Gov. Jane Swift is proposing a plan to give state-funded parental leave to low- and moderate-income parents. She has recently returned from her own maternity leave after the birth of twins.

As Geary and her husband begin a new chapter in their lives, they will no longer be ships passing in the night. Whatever the lost income and career tradeoffs, this first step toward normalcy could prove to be, as Geary herself might say, "awesome" - one family's solution to a national issue that will not go away.

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