By: Eric Ameigh, City of Boulder, CO, LinkedIn
According to the New York Times, 2016 “is shaping up to be a big year for paid family leave.” That’s a bold, exciting statement which hopefully turns out to be true. But, as I hear and read about paid leave efforts at the City of Dayton, City of Ferndale, MI, and in my home state of New York, and elsewhere, I am transported back to the fall of 2015 when these efforts have a long way to go.
In October 2015 (more than a few news cycles ago), two note worthy items occurred. ELGL held a great annual conference #ELGL15 and Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan was elected as the speaker of the US House of Representatives.
As might be expected, #ELGL15 featured a strong emphasis on the #13percent, a campaign to address the sad fact that the percentage of CAO jobs held by women hasn’t budged in 30 years. ELGL has been heavily involved in facilitating conversations about work life balance and the role of men in addressing local government’s #13percent challenge. An idea that has gained traction in ELGL conversations is that women, especially those with families, will advance at work, if and when, men advance at home.
Hypocrite or Hero
Rep. Ryan’s conditions for becoming speaker generated was part of the side conversation at #ELGL15. Ryan, a relatively young white male, was being pressed into service by his party. Before even being willing to discuss the position, Ryan made it clear that giving up time with his young family was a non-negotiable condition.
Could Ryan’s public demand for work life balance be a harbinger of things to come? Would it mean something for the rest of us?
Ryan’s conditions for taking the job was a first. A political star stepping into a position of influence publicly stating that his family was a major priority. What a novelty! How refreshing! Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, of Lean In fame, gave (now) Speaker Ryan the Lean In Award of the Day on October 21, 2015. Others, including liberal media mogul Arianna Huffington jumped on the bandwagon too.
But others were quick to characterize Ryan as the ultimate hypocrite. After all, his party (Republican Party) had consistently opposed policies such as paid family leave that would have made law the same benefits that Ryan was seeking. So which is it? Is Ryan a symbol for work life balance or a despicable hypocrite? Well, after a bit of thought I don’t think it’s either one.
As it stands now, having control over your schedule is a benefit similar to a pension or paid time off. It’s part of an overall package that results from an agreement between employer and employee. Some employees have an agreement (i.e. union contract) that is collectively bargained. Other workers follow established company policy. In some organizations, especially those in the private sector, benefits may be different for each employee.
Regardless of where you work, your ability to control your schedule and work life balance comes down to one thing: leverage.
Do you need your job more than your employer needs you?
How replaceable are you?
Are you good at your job?
Does your company fear that you might leave for a better job?
Currently, workers with leverage can demand more; workers without leverage cannot. This is problematic as economic shifts sort the workforce into new categories — one group of highly skilled, educated, and in-demand workers and another group of low skilled, lesser educated, replaceable workers.
Next Man Up?
Ryan consistently said he did not want the job of Speaker. He rebuffed recruitment attempts. But, when House Leader Kevin McCarthy dropped out of the race, Ryan was thought to be the only person who could unite House Republicans. When his colleagues came back to him with a final entreaty, his leverage could not have been higher. He had an opportunity to get the job on his terms and he took it. Ryan understood there was a strong market for his services and he was the only seller. So he set the terms.
Speaker Ryan is not a symbol for work life balance, nor is he a hypocrite. In reality, he is a champion of the status quo and a believer in free market principles. Given his conservative credentials, it makes perfect sense.
The ELGL community should think about changing the status quo from a class of workers can extract concessions while another class cannot. Taking care of your family and personal needs and earning a living should not be mutually exclusive – for anyone. As we navigate our careers and personal need for balance, we should think about pushing for larger structural change wherever possible. As a big tent organization, we have a responsibility to think about everybody who might be under the tent, not just ourselves.