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As Cuts Loom, Will Working From Home Lead to a Layoff?

Employment lawyers, work-life coaches and groups across the country that advocate for working mothers say they're hearing from women who are afraid to ask for flexible work arrangements, feel pressure to end such arrangements, or in some cases have been forced out for not giving them up. The situation is frustrating proponents of work-life initiatives because studies have shown that giving employees a say in when and where they work pays dividends in increased productivity and doesn't necessarily cost much.

"The trend had been moving toward more flexibility. Now we're going in the opposite direction," said Gary Phelan, a partner with Outten and Golden, a New York law firm that works in an emerging area of law known as family responsibilities discrimination.

A limited number of employers have turned to flex time and telecommuting to contain costs. Nortel Networks, for example, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January, is encouraging employees to work remotely to cut real estate expenses, spokesman Jay Barta said. And FedEx, which on Thursday announced more job cuts and a sharp drop in profit, recently gave employees at four call centers the option to work remotely as a cost-saving measure.

Other firms such as Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase, which have also had layoffs, are spending the same or less on work-life initiatives than they were a year ago, but have managed to maintain or increase them.

These companies, however, are the exception, human resource specialists said.

"Most employers, when it comes to any initiative in human resources, have sort of hunkered down," said Paul Rupert, president of Rupert and Co., who advises corporations on work-life initiatives. "They're almost paralyzed because they don't know what's happening."

Surveys show that, rather than granting employees flexibility to save costs, employers are more likely to freeze salaries, slash the travel budget or resort to layoffs.

Work-life balance policies fall into the category of "nice to have," said Deborah Keary, a director at the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria. "Should we do telecommuting? They don't care. They're worried about where are they going to get payroll next week."

The Obama administration has stressed the importance of policies that improve the "work and family balance." The issue ranks high on the agendas of two newly created panels: the White House's middle-class task force and its council on women and girls.

At the state and local level, however, government efforts to ensure employees get paid sick days and paid leave have run into the realities of the recession. Such policies benefit low-wage workers who often don't receive either. But falling tax revenues have led some jurisdictions to make hard choices.

For example, a shortage of funding prompted Washington state to postpone enforcing a law for paid family leave that was to take effect later this year. A Milwaukee business group succeeded in blocking in court similar requirements for paid sick days, arguing that such rules would impose a financial burden on employers. And the chief sponsor of a bill regarding paid sick leave in Colorado pulled the legislation when it became clear the state couldn't find the funds to pay two state employees to monitor and enforce it.

Highly paid professionals are more likely to work at places that offer options such as flex time and telecommuting. But many also feel rising unemployment has left them in a weaker position to argue with managers about when and where they work.

Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, who has been surveying women executives at top Wall Street firms for a forthcoming book, said that since last fall a larger proportion reported being unhappy and cited an increased emphasis on face time as a major reason.

"Leaving the jacket on the back of your chair 14 hours a day is part of the campaign to prove you are indispensable, so whatever flex arrangement you had, it's very hard to take that any more," Hewlett said.

Emily Muschinske, of South Orange, N.J., cites her reduced work schedule as a major factor behind being recently laid off from a major children's publisher in New York.

Muschinske, 37, had cut back from full time to four days a week after returning from maternity leave three years ago, she said. At the time, her title was changed from art director to senior designer, even though she was performing the same job.

When her company started tightening up last year, first by canceling the Christmas party, then by cutting off the supply of free coffee and freezing some salaries, she "could see the purse strings kind of closing." Job cuts soon followed.

"I think anybody with a flexible arrangement feels like their job is on the line," Muschinske said.

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