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The Dynamics of Union and Employer Relations in the US (Part VIII)

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

(Note: This article contains content adapted from lesson material written for APUS classes.)

This is the eighth article in a 10-part series on the dynamics of union and employer relations in the United States.

In the previous article, we explored workplace interventions that are disrupting the traditional union negotiating environment. Now, we’ll discuss how modern workplace transformation through flexible scheduling models is altering union-employer dynamics.

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Workplaces are being dramatically transformed today. As organizations are developing strategies to increase efficiency, unions have to prepare for these changes and adapt. Schedules and work hours are mandatory bargaining issues regulated by federal and state wage and hour laws.

Yet businesses remain free to innovate in terms of how they structure work and allocate human capital. Thus, flexible scheduling strategies present a difficult challenge for the union-employer dynamic.

Scheduling Policies that Give Workers Flexible Time Are Conducive to a Better Lifestyle

Flexible schedules are promoted ostensibly to improve employees’ work-life balance. Perceptions regarding the roles of work and career have changed from the notion that work is life to a position that work simply provides the means to have a life. As such, scheduling policies that allow employees to be more flexible with their time are conducive to a better balance with other needs such as family, hobbies and social activities.

However, better work-life balance isn’t the only benefit of flexible schedules. From the employer’s perspective, flexible schedules mean smarter resource allocation and potentially reduced labor costs through hour reductions, reduced headcounts, or any combination of the two.

One commonly used flexible work schedule is called flex time. Under flex time, instead of mandating a rigid work schedule of, say, 40 hours a week nine-to-five, employers simply require that employees clock a certain number of hours weekly without dictating when those hours must be clocked. So, if employees prefer to work weekends, nights or mornings, they are free to do so just as long as they meet their total 40-hour requirement for the pay period.

The other common flexible work schedule is the ROWE, or Results-Only Work Environment. ROWE takes flexible work schedules one step further than flex time because it has no mandates regarding hours whatsoever. Instead, as the name suggests, ROWE focuses only on results. Employees are given tasks or projects to complete, and no minimum hours are required. They just have to get the job done within certain parameters, which might include quality standards, timeliness and other variables.

The amount of time spent on a task and when that time will be spent is entirely up to the employee. As the “R” in ROWE indicates, all that the employer cares about are the results.

Obviously, these types of flexible schedule strategies are not applicable to all work environments. For example, emergency services like police, fire, and medical facilities must have rigid schedules to ensure adequate staffing at all times.

Even customer service environments like hotels, restaurants and retail stores are dependent on strict scheduling for workload management. However, other industries, like engineering, software development, marketing and legal work are experimenting with these strategies. And although they are not without operational challenges, many industries have reported great success.

Regardless of industry, however, flexible work schedule strategies present unique challenges for unions and collective bargaining agreements. For example, if employee wages are negotiated by the hour and then employers wish to switch to a ROWE model, how should compensation be calculated and determined? Also, if employees are to be granted overtime pay beyond certain hour caps, how is that measured?

Flexible Work Schedules Are a Challenge for Employer Compliance with the FLSA

As an aside, it’s worth noting that this is not just a challenge for unions and their agreements with employers, it’s more generally a challenge for employers and their compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

These problems are not insurmountable, but they do require careful consideration during negotiations between employers and unions. The goal is to ensure that employer protections for employees are fair to all stakeholders and that they address the specific nature of how employee schedules are structured.

But despite best efforts, sometimes relations between employers and unions break down and disputes arise. In the penultimate part of this series, we’ll look at how arbitration is often used to settle disputes between parties to collective bargaining agreements.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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