washingtonpost.com
As Cuts Loom, Will Working From Home Lead to a Layoff?
Recession Pushes Some to Eschew Flexible Job Policies

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 2009

With the recession forcing businesses to cut back on workers, employees are increasingly doing all they can to hang onto their jobs and are forgoing many of the benefits that once allowed them to balance the demands of work and family life.

In good times, workers frequently seized the opportunity to use "flex time" and family leave, to telecommute and to take paid sick days. But, according to workplace consultants, human resources specialists and employees themselves, those days are slipping away. More workers are giving up those arrangements, or resisting asking about them in the first place, out of fears that doing so will make them appear less committed to their work and therefore more expendable.

Some workers' advocates say they are particularly concerned about the consequences for women.

There's now a "silent fright" among workers, said Joanne Brundage, executive director of Mothers & More, a 21-year-old networking group, likening the atmosphere to what she saw 20 years ago, when working mothers were advised not to keep pictures of their children in their cubicles.

"That's what it feels like we're returning to. Work as many hours as you possibly can. Make yourself indispensable. Don't ever complain. Don't ever ask for anything," she said. "I'm just horrified we may as well just forget the last 20 years."

For their part, many managers are doing little to calm those concerns, human resource consultants say. They tend to view options such as flex time and telecommuting as retention tools, experts say, and in recessions, fear of unemployment is just as effective.

There is little data on the recession's impact on so-called work-life initiatives in the private sector. But there is anecdotal evidence that, while few companies are formally suspending programs, employees feel pressure to reconsider their work arrangements.

Madeliene Arcega, an office manager at a New York media company, said she recently had to give up telecommuting. Since returning to full-time work after maternity leave, she had been working two days a week from home. But as the recession deepened, she said, her company began trimming positions. Arcega, 36, was allowed to stay as long as she took on more responsibilities and came to the office five days a week. She was able to get a relative to care for her toddler, but the arrangement is not ideal.

"I was worried the alternative was no job at all," she said.

Teresa Hopke, talent management director for the national accounting firm RSM McGladrey said that while senior leadership at her company remains committed to flexibility, some middle managers have become more resistant.

"I have heard comments like, 'now is our chance to take back the company,' [and] comments about the fact employees shouldn't feel entitled to ask for flexibility during this time because they should be lucky to have a job," she said.

As a result, top executives at the firm plan to emphasize to employees that alternative work options are still available.

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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company