The Workplace Challenges Political Candidates Have To Address

It’s not your grandpa’s workplace anymore, but if you listen to the presidential and congressional candidates, it’s easy to wonder if they're aware that it’s 2012, not 1972. This is especially true for issues related to work and life in a modern, hectic, global, high-tech world.

Addressing these issues isn’t "nice, but non-urgent." They directly impact the economic growth agenda that the candidates say is their primary focus. Productivity and innovation can’t happen without considering the reality people face on and off the job.

Now, I’m not saying government can solve all of the challenges. In fact, employers and individuals also need to act and think differently if we are going to construct a new model of prosperity for all. But public policy plays a role and must catch up.

I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but we need to start a serious debate grounded in today’s world.  Here are the six present-day work and life questions I wish every candidate for president and Congress would acknowledge. Doing so would let voters know that at least they understand the issues exist.

Questions #1 and #2: Who is going to care for the aging population? How are caregivers supposed to provide that care while working, and how are they supposed to pay for it? 

If there’s one issue looming on the horizon that’s going to slam full force into businesses of all sizes and their employees (men and women), it’s eldercare. In terms of who will provide care, it’s not going to be a current or former stay-at-home parent or spouse:

Employers aren’t dealing with the reality at all. In fact, according to a new study by the National Alliance for Caregiving, only 9% of employers offered referrals for eldercare in 2011, down from 22% in 2007.

And, individuals are equally as unprepared. According to Denise Brown, founder of Caregiving.com, most people believe Medicare will pay for and provide care, which is not true. As a result, families don’t plan or budget and are overwhelmed financially, physically, and emotionally. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for a growing number of men and women to fully contribute at work.

Question #3: How are you going to support and promote greater work flexibility?

Work flexibility offers many benefits to businesses and people. After almost two decades in the trenches working with organizations and individuals, I don’t believe the government can mandate flexibility. Each business and each person is too different for a one-size-fits-all approach to flexibility to succeed. However, there are issues the government can address that stand in the way of progress:

  • Update the Fair Labor Standards Act:  In short, this legislation was created in the Industrial Age when most people physically worked in an office or plant for a set number of hours. It ensures that people are paid overtime, which is important; however, we need to update the legislation. This isn’t going to be easy because there are many arguments for and against a change (here and here). But the reality is that today people don’t necessarily work in a physical space during a set, standard workweek. This creates a huge potential liability for employers and, understandably, causes them to limit work flexibility for non-exempt employees. Additionally, it limits the ability to compensate workers for overtime with “time” instead of money, which some prefer.
  • Update Tax and Liability Laws to Support Telework:  Again, certain tax laws were written in an era when people physically walked into a building located in the same state to work every day. Today, companies may have employees who telework from another state. Who gets to tax that income?  Also, what about the liability for employees who hurt themselves while “working” remotely. Who pays? All of these issues need to be updated and clarified. 

Question #4:  Since most caregivers (mothers and fathers) work, what are we going to do about child care and paid leave?

Having flexibility in how, when, and where you work, is critical for caregivers; however, it doesn’t help if you can’t find reliable, affordable, quality care for your child.  That includes full-time care for young children but also before- and after-school programs as well as summer care for school age kids.

In 1971, we almost had a coordinated approach to child care for children 0-14 years. Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Care Act with bipartisan and broad private-public support; however, President Nixon vetoed the law, citing “the protection of family.”

Ironically, 40 years later, that veto only ended up hurting families. Again, most parents work for pay. And women, especially in lower income families, earn as much or more than their partners. They can’t quit even if they wanted to without putting their family’s financial well-being at risk. So parents struggle to work while patching together often unreliable, budget-busting, low-quality care. This hurts all of us, not just parents.

Finally, we need to broker a middle ground solution on paid leave. Historically, advocates for paid leave have promoted the generous European model. In response, the advocates for business say that even one day of pay leave is too much. We need to move beyond these entrenched positions and find a reasonable compromise that would give caregivers something. How can the government encourage a deal?

Question #5: How are we going to support a new hybrid model of work and retirement?

Not only is it not your grandpa’s workplace anymore, it’s not his retirement either. Almost no one today works for the same company her entire career, gets a pension, and retires fully at age 65. Many of us will have to retrain at some point as our skills become obsolete. Others will have to or want to work after we leave our “first” careers, perhaps involuntarily.

Marc Freedman through his organization Civic Ventures and in his book, The Big Shift, advocates for a new phase of life called an Encore Career. Among the public policy changes he supports are savings accounts that people can use for retraining later in life.

Also, do the Social Security rules reflect today’s “retirement” reality? For example, let’s say you are laid off involuntarily from your job at 60 years old and you struggle to find a job that pays a comparable wage. If you start to draw Social Security benefits before your full retirement age (66 to 67), your benefits are reduced by $1 for every $2 you earn at work above $14,640. That makes it difficult for you to supplement your income above a very minimal amount from age 60 to 66 years if you choose to draw benefits and work.

As the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, Social Security benefits are not as generous for women who have worked their entire lives. Also, the government limits on contributions to retirements savings constrain anyone who may leave the workforce for a period of time from making up for lost pension coverage with increased savings. 

Question #6:  How are we going to uncouple health care from employment?

In 1972, when you worked full-time for General Motors for 30 years, making your job the primary source for medical insurance made sense. But, today, almost no one will have that experience.

Not only will most of us work for different employers throughout our careers, a growing number of jobs are contingent/project based (and here) and many employers don’t offer health coverage, especially small businesses.  No matter what the Supreme Court decides related to the current legislation that attempts to reorganize and update health care, the fact is the current system as it is today is unsustainable financially and doesn’t align with a workforce that has changed.

Those are my six most pressing concerns.

What questions about the reality of work and life in today’s modern, hectic, connected world do you want the candidates for president and Congress to at least acknowledge? What would give you comfort that they get that it’s not 1972, but 2012?

Connect with Cali at the award-winning Work+Life Fit blog and on Twitter @caliyost.

[Image: Flickr user Sheng Han]

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