New Report Address Work-Life Conflict Across Income Levels

Jan. 25, 2010
On Jan. 25, the Center for American Progress and the Center for WorkLife Law at the UC Hastings College of the Law released a new report that analyzes the struggle millions of American families face in attempting to balance work and life responsibilities.

The report, “The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict,” points out that Americans work longer hours than workers in most other developed countries, including Japan, where the word karoshi means “death by overwork.” The typical American middle-income family put in an average of 11 more hours a week in 2006 than it did in 1979. As a result, work-family conflict is much higher in the United States than elsewhere in the developed world, with fully 90 percent of American mothers and 95 percent of American fathers reporting work-family conflict.

Moreover, Americans work longer hours with fewer government-mandated family support laws than the rest of the developed world. The support laws that do exist lack characteristics such as paid maternity-leave laws, paid sick days, limits on mandatory overtime, the right to request work-time flexibility without retaliation and proportional wages for part-time work. All exist elsewhere in the developed world.

The authors, Heather Boushey and Joan C. Williams, identified three key groups in the report:

  • Low-income families are defined as the bottom one-third of families in terms of income. According to the report, these families “struggle with exceptionally high levels of work-family conflict” because they often have more responsibility for their family members and can’t pay others to care for them. They also are more likely to have a family member who is ill.
  • Professional-managerial families, defined as families with incomes in the top 20 percent, in which at least one adult is a college graduate, made up 13 percent of families in 2008. The report shows that nearly 80 percent of married mothers in this group are employed. These mothers work more hours and are about twice as likely as middle-income mothers to work more than 50 hours a week.
  • The “missing middle,” or families in the remaining percent of incomes, made up 53 percent of families in 2008. This group can include those who work in public sector jobs, such as firefights or police, construction and factory workers, medical technicians, office managers, receptionists, bookkeepers and so on. Unlike professionals, the missing middle often have “rigid, highly supervised jobs” that lack flexibility.

“What all Americans need are workplaces designed for busy 21st century families,” the report stated. “Employers and policymakers must recognize that the typical worker is now in a family in which all adults are employed, children need care when young and after school, the elderly live into their 80s and 90s, and ill family members sometimes need to be cared for at home.”


“The typical American workplace today is so deeply out of sync with today’s workforce because of dramatic changes over the past few decades in incomes, working hours, and patterns of family care. The result is widespread work-family conflicts, but in ways that play out differently among the poor, the professionals, and the missing middle,” the report stated.

According to the report, four basic elements are required to help address the needs of Americans at all income levels:

Workplace flexibility “Employers need to come to terms with the need for workplace flexibility to respond to legitimate family needs,” the report stated. Low-income workers need scheduling predictability and minimum hours; middle- and low-income employees need the ability to take time off for family emergencies; middle-income workers and professionals need limits on mandatory overtime; and professionals need relief from 24/7 availability.

Short-term, episodic, and extended time off – “All employees need job-protected time off to care for children or ailing family members, and to address their own health needs,” the report explained. This includes short-term leave in urgent cases, such as caring for a sick child, as well as extended time off to attend to a new child or family member with a serious health condition. This type of leave particularly is crucial for low-income workers, but many middle-income Americans, and a hefty proportion of professionals, also lack short-term leaves to care for ill children or elders, according to the report.

Childcare, after-school care and adult care – “High-quality, affordable childcare and after-school care is important to all American parents, from the most to the least affluent,” stated the report. This includes not just children in elementary school – middle and high school students need after-school or enrichment programs, too.

Addressing family responsibilities discrimination – All workers must be free from discrimination based on family responsibilities, the report stressed. Low-income workers tend to encounter discrimination early, such as when low-income mothers become pregnant; middle-income mothers may be discriminated against when they return from maternity leave; and professional mothers encounter discrimination when requesting flexible or part-time work. Across the spectrum of income levels, men “often encounter discrimination that sends the message that caring for family members is women’s work,” the reported added.

“Addressing work-family conflict will require that employers make some changes – but not that they lose money in the process. The reality is that best-practice employers typically find that workplace flexibility helps their bottom line,” the report explained. “One of the challenges is that the policies in place tend to be lopsided – flexible work hours and paid leave are often available only to the highest-paid employees, while government subsidies for childcare are often available to only the least paid. Policies, both public and private, need to be smoothed out, so that they help not only the poor and professionals but also the missing middle.”

The full report can be downloaded at

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