Flexible schedules is a topic of particular interest to me, in some part, because I am the grateful beneficiary of one. I commend employers, including my own, who have made the enlightened and informed decision to offer this benefit. It’s a decision that I firmly believe will pay dividends in employee loyalty and ultimately save the employer money on hiring, retraining, etc.
Raising happy, healthy, adjusted children is the responsibility of our entire population, and the burden of doing so should not rest on the mother’s shoulders alone. However, the United States, unlike other industrialized nations, has little legislation to promote this ideal. Absent the FMLA, permitting new parents 12 weeks (unpaid) to bond with their children, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which prevents employers from discriminating against women on the basis of their pregnancy, accommodations or benefits to assist new mothers in balancing their work and families are left largely to the employer’s discretion.
WorkLife Law has advocated aggressively and effectively on behalf of working mothers, suggesting litigation through existing statutes where possible to remedy inequities with respect to mothers in the workplace. In part due to their efforts, the EEOC issued its guidance on Unlawful Disparate Treatment of Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities , which helped to focus employers and EEOC investigators on subtle biases about the commitment of working mothers to their job responsibilities, that may result in actionable discrimination cases.
A recent “Employer Alert” from WorkLife Law, however, has taken it too far, suggesting the following:
[P]ay discrimination claims can arise in the context of reduced hours employees. Consider the female employee who returns from maternity leave and adopts a part-time schedule. She later learns that she is paid at a lower rate than a full-time male employee who performs similar work. Employers often fail to consider whether their pay decisions with respect to employees on a reduced schedule may be discriminatory. Yet, the majority of employees on reduced hours schedules are women, typically mothers.
Thus, WorkLife Law suggests that a potential lawsuit may lie for women who are the beneficiaries of a part-time schedule but feel they are being paid at a “lower rate,” whatever that means. Most “flexible schedules” are afforded to professional woman on an annual salary. It goes with out saying that in exchange for a “reduced” or “flexible” schedule, women on these schedules accept some kind of salary cut. It is not always easy to quantify, but it is anticipated that a woman working fewer hours accepts less pay.
What often happens is that women on “reduced” schedules end up producing the same workload, or accomplishing the same tasks than their (predominantly male) co-workers do on a full-time schedule, either by working more than their agreed hours (perhaps at home), or simply by being more efficient.
Addressing this inequity through litigation is the wrong answer. First, it is unlikely to be successful. Flexible schedules are a benefit, currently left to the sole discretion of the employer. As long as they are offered to men and women alike, the fact that women who chose them may then suffer some unfairness in pay scale is not likely to be actionable. Courts have routinely held in other contexts that where a benefit, or lack thereof, may disparately impact one sex or the other, as long as the benefit is applied uniformly to both sexes, it is not discriminatory.
For instance, employees have litigated against employers who have failed to provide medical coverage for infertility treatments or even birth control, arguing that this unfairly impacts women. Although such coverage clearly impacts women more than men, the vast majority of courts have held that as long as the coverage was gender-neutral, i.e., no coverage of infertility treatments for men or women, it did not violate Title VII.
Second, there is an easy answer for employers if they are faced with this litigation: no more flexible schedules. The fact is, there are always going to be inequities as to pay in the workplace. There are always workers who will say “I’m doing more work than my co-worker and getting paid the same.” Just because this feeling may occur in the context of a flexible work schedule does not make it a violation of Title VII, nor do I think the beneficiaries of flexible schedules ultimately would benefit from this approach.
Unless or until legislation is passed addressing flexible schedules, the best way to address perceived inequities in pay is not through litigation.