For 16 years, Dena Adams investigated child abuse cases for Covenant House, a New York City nonprofit. But when the agency put her on the overnight shift in 2011, the single mother had difficulty finding care for her 11-year-old daughter.
Adams didn't feel comfortable leaving the girl alone at night in her Brooklyn neighborhood, which could be dangerous, so she asked Covenant House for an evening shift instead. The agency refused — and then fired her.
"I thought they would work with me and they worked against me," Adams said. "I can work anywhere, any job. Just give me the flexibility to care for my daughter. That's all I ask."
Some cities and states are trying to give that flexibility to their own employees. California, Iowa, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island and South Carolina direct state agencies to allow "flextime" schedules for their workers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Some states and cities are going further, by applying the same rules to the private sector. At the beginning of this year, Vermont and San Francisco began mandating that private employers consider employees' requests for flextime without retaliation. New York City may soon follow.
There's interest on the federal level. In July, Reps. George Miller, D-California, and Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, introduced the Schedules That Work Act, which would give hourly workers more control over their schedules. In June, President Barack Obama directed federal agencies to give workers more leeway in work schedules. And last year, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, introduced the Flexibility for Working Families Act, which would authorize employees to ask for permanent or temporary changes in their work schedules.
"I hope as these bills are introduced around the country, the onus will be on the employer to make this work, and (that they will) address the critical issue of scheduling and adequate hours," said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values at Work, a national network of 21 state and local coalitions advocating for family-friendly workplace policies.
Eighty-two percent of American children are growing up in households where both parents work, but a 2012 study by the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management found that employees who asked for flexible working arrangements to care for a child or elderly relative often faced negative consequences. According to the National Women's Law Center, less than half of employees across the country have any say in their work schedules, while more than one-third of parents believe request for flexible work schedules cost them promotions.
In Vermont, private-sector employees can ask for flexible work schedules for any reason. In San Francisco, they can request flexibility to care for a child, a parent 65 or older or any family member with a chronic health condition. Employers are required to seriously consider the worker's request and provide concrete explanations if the company can't accommodate the flextime request.
But flextime can be a challenge for managers, particularly when employees have to work in teams, said Teresa Amabile, professor and a director of research at Harvard Business School. This is particularly true if the schedule change is unexpected, she said. "That can just wreak havoc on the rest of the team; how they're going to get information from them or how they're going to do handoffs."
Coordinating workflow and communications is the biggest challenge facing managers and companies, Amabile said. But she said these hurdles can be managed using technology, and that her research has shown that flextime can work well for both companies and employees.
"It's a wonderful tool from the company's perspective of retaining talented employees," said Amabile, the co-author of "The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work." "From the employee's side, people are more engaged with their work and perform more productively and more creatively when they feel they have more autonomy in their work."
In the U.S., the debate over flexible work hours heated up a couple of years ago when Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, urged women to "Lean In" and take charge of their careers, while Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer rescinded the company's previous flextime and telecommuting policies in favor of "face time" in the office.
Some labor researchers worry that the talk about flexible work arrangements will focus exclusively on middle-class, white-collar workers while ignoring the needs of shift workers who are often at the mercy of managers who can change their schedules on a whim. Fewer than three out of 10 employees say they have the ability to change their daily starting times, and only one in 10 employees participate in flextime schedules, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research.