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Introducing the Thrive Index

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“We know low-income women are the backbone of our economy and of their families. We also know the challenges these women face are often quite different from those facing middle- and higher-income workers. These women on the brink are more likely to be younger, less well educated, without a partner, and raising kids. What they need—and what our economy needs—are supportive, flexible, Effective Workplaces, which benefit the employee, the employer, and our nation as a whole.”

— Ellen Galinsky, President of Families and Work Institute, in The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink

Remember the line about Ginger Rogers’ skill as a dancer? That she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels?

As we developed the third Shriver Report, focusing on the 42 million American women who are struggling to keep themselves on solid financial footing, two things struck me again and again.

The first is that too many women are stuck in impossibly difficult circumstances. Jobs that don’t pay enough to cover necessities. A pay equity gap such that a woman with a bachelor’s degree earns what a male with an associate’s degree makes. Male partners and co-parents who are often even less financially stable. Children who need care, but also need their mom to work more hours to keep a roof over their heads. Quality child care that is nearly impossible to find at hours that cover low-wage workers’ unpredictable schedules, and that is prohibitively expensive without a subsidy. And no sick leave. Most low-wage workers do not have access to a single paid sick day; if she or her child gets the flu, or a serious illness, there goes the grocery money, or bus fare, or the electric bill.

In this country, we expect low-wage women workers to dance backwards and in heels, underwater, while juggling.

Here’s the second thing that struck me: Women are doing it. Across the country, they are somehow managing to make it to work, to school, to the grocery store, to tuck their kids in, and maybe back to work. They are cobbling together networks of care. They are resilient, competent, driven, and productive. They are the kind of employees a smart boss invests in.

But their efforts take a toll—on their health, their professional prospects, their skills development, their quality of life, and their kids. And this affects all of us, now and in years to come. A nation where one-third of the population is teetering on the brink of poverty is not stable, it is not poised for growth, and it is neglecting its most valuable asset—its people.

With The Shriver Report, we wanted to know why the nation was behaving so irrationally, and what it would take to fix it. Take just our workplaces: Our labor markets and workplace policies and practices were designed and evolved around the model of a male worker with a stay-at-home partner. We are way past that model, for good. How hard could it be for workplaces to catch up?

We asked Ann Huff Stevens, the Director of the Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis and Professor and Chair of the Department of Economics, to figure out what the workplace policies were that had the greatest impact on the well-being and productivity of low-wage women workers. Stevens and her team did an extensive review of existing research, looking for the first time at the specific needs of low-wage workers who are often also primary caregivers. Benefiting from the invaluable expertise of Ellen Galinsky and Families and Work Institute, they produced a first-of-its-kind checklist for employers to use when considering how to invest in their most valuable—and undervalued—labor resource: low-wage women.

This is what they found.

The Thrive Index

Adequate wages and benefits

  • Are part-time workers paid the same (per hour, including benefits) as full-time workers performing the same or similar tasks?
  • Are most part-time workers guaranteed a minimum number of hours per week? If not, are there ways they could be?
  • Are workers who remain on the job for a specified period of time eligible for a pay increase?
  • Are workers who remain on the job for a specified period of time eligible for paid sick leave for themselves or to care for a family member?
  • When job-skill demands or responsibilities increase, are wages adjusted upward?
  • Are workers paid for their entire scheduled shift, even if business is slow?
  • Are hourly wages higher for nonstandard shifts, such as nights or weekends?

Opportunities for learning and upward mobility

  • Do low-wage workers have opportunities for on-the-job or cross-task training or outside educational opportunities that can lead to upward mobility?
  • Can schedules accommodate workers’ pursuit of educational opportunities?
  • When skill demands or job responsibilities increase, is training provided for newly assigned tasks?
  • Can workers cross-train in different areas to increase their flexibility and value to the company (recognizing that outsourcing of some functional areas or other factors may prohibit this)?
  • Are there opportunities for upward mobility within the company that do not require geographic relocation?

Support for personal and family needs

  • Can worker breaks be scheduled to accommodate the need for phone calls at pre-specified times for working caregivers?
  • Are occasional calls for urgent matters allowable? Can children or caregivers call an employee at work when necessary?
  • Are workers who remain on the job for a specified period of time eligible during their regular work hours to care for their health or a family member’s without losing pay (e.g., able to leave for an hour or two for a trip to the doctor)?
  • Can personal time be taken in small increments of an hour or two (for doctor’s appointments, parent-teacher conferences, educational opportunities, etc.)?
  • Do you offer paid or unpaid maternity or paternity leave for workers? Is the length of this leave negotiable?

Work scheduling, predictability, and flexibility

  • Is there a systematic way for workers to communicate their preferences for hours and schedules? If not, could some such system be implemented?
  • Does the shift/hours scheduling system take account of workers’ constraints and preferences?
  • Are work schedules announced more than a day or two in advance? Can workers trade shifts with colleagues when time conflicts develop (allow “shift-swapping”)?
  • If workers are asked to stay beyond the end of scheduled shifts to finish assignments or for administrative procedures, are they given advance notice of when this may be required?
  • Does the measured workload take into account the quality or difficulty of tasks along with simpler measures of the number of customers, clients, or patients?

Autonomy, respect, and trust

  • Are workers protected from “no-fault” absence or tardiness policies (ones that lead to disciplinary actions or dismissal, even for excused absences)?
  • Are workers allowed or encouraged to contribute ideas to better organize or improve their work teams or work areas?
  • Can workers occasionally make personal phone calls?

References for Thrive Index

Appelbaum, Eileen, P. Berg, A. Frost, and G. Preuss. 2002. “The Effects of Work Restructuring on Low-wage, Low-Skill Workers in U.S. Hospitals.” New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Batt, Rosemary, V. Doellgast, and H. Kwon. 2005. “U.S. Call Center Industry Report 2004 National Benchmarking Report Strategy, HR Practices & Performance.” Cornell University Working Paper.

Berg, Peter, and Ann C. Frost. “Dignity at work for low wage, low skill service workers.” Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relations 60 (4) (2005): 657–682.

Bernhardt, Annette. 1999. “The Future of Low-Wage Jobs: Case Studies in the Retail Industry.” Columbia University Institute on Education and the Economy, Working Paper 10.

Bernhardt, Annette, L. Dresser, and E. Hatton. 2003. “The Coffee Pot Wars: Unions and Firm Restructuring in the Hotel Industry.” In E. Appelbaum, A. Bernhardt, and R. Murnane, eds., Low-Wage America: How employers are reshaping opportunity in the workplace. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Bond, J.T., and E. Galinsky. 2012. “What Difference do Job Characteristics Make to Low-income Employees?” New York: Families and Work Institute.

Bond, J.T., and E. Galinsky. 2012. “Low-Income Employees in the United States.” New York: Families and Work Institute.

Bond, J.T., E. Tahmincioglu, and E. Galinsky. 2012. “Not Just ‘Jobs’ … ‘Good Jobs’: The Low-Income Workforce Challenge.” New York: Families and Work Institute.

Bornstein, Stephanie. 2012. “Work, Family, and Discrimination at the Bottom of the Ladder.” Georgetown Journal on Poverty & Law Policy, Vol. 19.

Carre, Françoise, Chris Tilly, and Diana Denham. 2010. “Explaining Variation in the quality of US retail jobs.” New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Gautié, Jérôme, and John Schmitt, eds. 2010. Low-wage Work in the Wealthy World. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Gornick, Janet C., and Marcia Meyers. 2005. Families That Work: Policies For Reconciling Parenthood And Employment. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Heymann, J., and others. 2002. “Work-Family Issues and Low-Income Families.” New York: Ford Foundation.

Lambert, Susan J., Anna Haley-Lock, and Julia R. Henly. 2012. “Schedule Flexibility in Hourly Jobs: Unanticipated Consequences and Promising Directions.” Community, Work & Family 15 (3): 293–315.

Presser, Harriet B. 1995. “Job, Family, and Gender: Determinants of Nonstandard Work Schedules Among Employed Americans in 1991.” Demography 32 (4): 577–598. JSTOR. Web. May 19, 2013.

Ton, Zeynep. 2012. “Why ‘Good Jobs’ are Good for Retailers.” Harvard Business Review 90 (1-2): 124–131, 154.

Ton, Zeynep. 2009. “The Effect of Labor on Profitability: The Role of Quality.” Harvard Business School Working Paper.

Williams, Joan C. 2006. “One Sick Child Away from Being Fired: When ‘Opting Out’ is Not an Option.” University of California, Hastings: The Center for WorkLife Law.

Williams, Joan C., and Penelope Huang. 2011. “Improving Work-Life Fit in Hourly Jobs: An underutilized cost-cutting strategy in a globalized world.” University of California, Hastings: The Center for WorkLife Law.

Read the executive summary for The Shriver Report here.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Allison Preiss (economy, education, poverty)
202.478.6331 or apreiss@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues, Legal Progress, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org