Comptroller on workplace flexibility

City Comptroller Scott Stringer is proposing legislation to set the stage for flexible workplace hours for city employees — a topic very personal to him as a parent of two small children.

The legislation, “Right to Request,” aims to decrease the level of fear that employees may have in requesting flexible working arrangements by creating a platform for employees to approach their employers. Stringer announced findings from a report issued by his office joined by his wife Elyse Buxbaum and their two children.

A similar bill has been proposed at the federal level (called the Flexibility for Working Families Act), and model legislation is currently under consideration at the state level. These laws do not mandate that employers provide flexible scheduling, but they promote dialogue that can help eliminate the stigma associated with non-traditional work arrangements.

Stringer’s report, entitled “Families and Flexibility: Reshaping the Workplace for the 21st Century,” provides examples of best practices for companies to offer flexible scheduling to their employees and the variety of cost savings and other benefits that this scheduling can have for businesses. Advocates of the proposed legislation say that there is a need for “right to request” legislation because a change in hours can help a family, especially working families, single parents, and those caring for elderly relatives. The report is a strong attempt to bring everyone (legislators, business owners and employees) to the table to discuss this topic and find ways to implement flexible scheduling.

Following Stringer’s presentation, I discussed this topic with him further:

Shnieka Johnson: Your family was present at your most recent press conference on the “Right to Request” legislation. Are they what made you feel so strongly about this topic of workplace flexibility?

Scott Stringer: Yes, it’s a struggle my wife and I confront every day as the parents of two children under 3 with full time jobs. It is my duty to look out for the long-term interest of our city’s economy. Few issues have a more profound effect on the day-to-day lives of working people like us in our city and beyond than achieving what is popularly known as “work-life balance.”

SJ: There is a passionate group of supporters behind the legislation, but what obstacles do you foresee in implementing it?

SS: One of the greatest obstacles to flexible workplaces is the continued stigma associated with taking time from work to care for family members. That stigma won’t go away overnight — not after generations have become accustomed to the traditional 9-to-5 workday within the walls of a particular workstation.

However, the best way to chip away at that old philosophy and make employees expect and employers embrace flexible scheduling is to provide a safe space to start a conversation about how it can be a benefit to both workers and the bottom line.

We will look carefully at successful legislation overseas and in states across the country for best practices in how to effectively implement “right-to-request,” and I am confident that our city agencies, many of whom are well-versed in enforcement of employment laws, are up to the challenge.

I have a strong coalition in support of the legislation. At my press conference, I was joined by caregiver groups like AARP and the Alzheimer’s Association, women’s advocates like NARAL Prochoice NY and Catalyst, and groups that advocate for low-wage workers like the Center for Popular Democracy and the Retail Action Project.

SJ: Are there strategies in place to maintain momentum on this topic and continue the conversation?

SS: I plan to host a forum on this topic to engage with the business community and workers in all sectors. Many in the private sector have already realized that flexible workplace scheduling is profitable for all participants, but government can do more. I have strong legislative partners at the city, state, and federal level and there will be hearings on the bills.

SJ: Technology and telecommuting was mentioned a number of times during your remarks. Is that where you see the trends of workplace flexibility going?

SS: We’ve seen how technology can revolutionize our daily lives — from smartphones to GPS. But all too often, our institutions — business and government — are slow to pick up on what consumers already understand, namely, that technology can revolutionize the workplace and make the world more efficient.

Telecommuting certainly isn’t going to work for all businesses. After all, you can’t knead pizza dough on the internet or fit someone for a pair of shoes remotely. But for many businesses, technology will be one piece of a broader conversation about how flexibility works for their company and industry.

Aetna, one of America’s largest health insurers, increased its share of workers who telecommute — from nine percent in 2005 to 47 percent in 2012, saving the company $78 million in real estate costs alone.

SJ: How will this help working families with small children specifically?

SS: Flexible workplace arrangements allow parents and their employers to accommodate their schedules — that so often involve juggling many activities: day care, school drop-offs, doctor’s appointments, soccer practice, and many, many others. Sometimes adjusting your schedule by even one hour can make all the difference and have a positive impact on your work product

SJ: The benefits to the employees are clear, how does this legislation positively affect the businesses that are on board?

SS: For New York City to remain an economic engine, we must compete with other cities for top talent and investment. To do that, we must realize that everyone benefits from a policy that sees family and work as complementary, rather than competing parts of life. Happy, productive employees are good for business.

SJ: In the long-term, how will New York City benefit financially from “Right to Request?”

SS: This is an issue of economic competitiveness for the future of the city’s economy. By embracing flexible scheduling, it will help to keep employees who are also parents or caregivers in New York City and attract young people who see the city not only as a place where they can make their mark professionally, but also as a place where they can put down roots and raise a family.

SJ: What would you like to communicate to New York City parents about this proposed legislation?

SS: I am highlighting the value of this important policy change, and hoping to start a discussion about it in New York City. I want parents to know that I understand the challenges of balancing their family responsibilities and career. The pressure of caring for children and elderly parents is very real. I feel it every day. In the New York City Comptroller’s Office, we have our finger on the pulse of the New York City economy. That means responding to the needs of the business community, but also taking concrete steps to address the real challenges facing working people in all five boroughs. Promoting flexible work arrangements is but one piece of that effort, and I look forward to continuing this conversation in the months and years to come.

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Shnieka Johnson is an education consultant and freelance writer. She is based in Manhattan where she resides with her husband and son. Contact her via her website:

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