More Hours, More Availability, More Production, and More Labor Standards

Citizen Wealth

New Orleans   Susan Lambert, a University of Chicago professor, offers a series of intriguing arguments in an op-ed piece in the Times about work, women, hours, and flexibility some of which are compelling and all of which are interesting, even if less certain than she argues.  To state her case plainly, she believes that people, women in particular, in lower waged jobs want more hours and fixed hours and at higher paid jobs want less hours.  She believes that the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) needs to be amended to offer guarantees for hours not just pay for the hours and overtime needs to be added for salaried, professional job classifications.   Of course the FLSA is not going to be modified in this way at least anytime soon.  In this economy we are still hoping the government will take a look at the minimum wage, and that’s not likely soon either.

What about the rest of her arguments?  In some cases I’m not sure, but let’s get the conversation going.

I had my annual physical this week.  My doctor is a woman, and this year she was unusually talkative about her business.  It started when she focused on the computer to “write the orders,” and commented sarcastically about how “lucky” she was that she got to do all of her own orders now.  She told the common story of so many of our mother’s advice in her generation who had her take typing so she “would have something to fall back on.”  My mother told my brother and I the same thing and we took it in summer school somewhere, and in fairness it’s a skill that has been invaluable over the years.  It goes without saying that this new requirement had eliminated the job of a medical clerk but in a “work to rule” story from the professional side of the divide, she told me how she was handling 25 patients a day, but unilaterally cutback to 18 because she didn’t have enough staff to keep up, so the waiting was increasing and no one was happy.  Her one nurse simply couldn’t keep up with the orders as she was typing them out.  She works out of the clinic of a large hospital, and the bean counters at the big house finally noticed that her production was down and asked her about it, so she suspected things were about to change with more increased staffing.  It goes without saying that she was not going to work more hours which is part of why this problem hit the wall.

Studies about well trained and highly demanded registered nurses several years ago found some interesting things as well.  As pay increased to a certain level, the nurses, largely women, elected to simply work less hours having essentially met their income goals and having gained more flexibility on the job.  Obviously, nurses are among the “aristocracy” of waged labor with different job-based bargaining strength than aides, sitters, and others, but it points to the fact that Lambert’s generalization about the worker demand for more hours may be a little sweeping.

On the lower waged, retail service sector, it is also not quite so simple.  Lambert makes an excellent point about “availability” now being a “major form of human capital,” but I think it is perhaps more nuanced and less understood.  At Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, as an employer over our first year, I have continually tried to create something like fulltime hours and regular, stable shifts with our crew of baristas, and have been largely unsuccessful.  Thirty hours becomes a lot of hours, and part of the demand from the workforce continues to be more flexibility even as we want the availability and stability for our community of customers.

From a labor union perspective I think part of the issue is that service work has all become contingent.  Many workers are balancing multiple jobs, school, and family responsibilities.  In Professor Lambert’s ideal work world everyone wants one fulltime job with decent pay, and assuming that the work has some value and is fulfilling, who would disagree, but in the real world today, millions both up and down the wage scale have become what my friend Joel Solomon calls “portfolio workers,” balancing two, three, or more jobs, projects, or whatever that they are cobbling together to make a living wage and a life.

All of which leads me to believe that even if we had the power and will to modify the FLSA, we need to know a lot more about how to integrate the real world of the service economy and its employment patterns before we can be as certain as Professor Lambert about what the legislative solutions might be.  The old paradigm for 40-hours, 2080 a year for life may have been hit so hard in the new economy that there is no dialing back for many employers and, perhaps surprisingly, for many workers.

It’s hard for me to believe that when it comes to the bottom line it’s not more likely to be less about the hours and more about the money.