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Simara James is a mother of two, mindfulness coach and consultant, author, podcast host and flexible work expert looking to improve the lives of women across the globe by sharing tips to creating more balance and design a live that's full of fulfillment. 

The History of Work in America

For those of us born after 1950, a typical work day in corporate America has pretty much consisted of getting dressed in office appropriate clothing, getting in our cars, and commuting to a branded office building usually surrounded by other branded office buildings in huge corporate complexes. Those of us who have successfully checked off the boxes we're given in grade school (get good grades, go to college, get a good job) march in to spaces complete with cubicles and all of the heavy duty office equipment one could imagine to get papers pushed, phone calls made, and assigned tasks completed. Work schedules, office attire and office environment have become so cookie cutter that as a society we have come up with all kinds of slang to describe the approximately 8 hours per day we spend working such as "9-5" or …... Some refer to the office "uniform" as monkey suits alluding to the fact that there is a certain corporate personality one has to take on to "survive" in an office environment complete with lingo and mannerisms. What we don't often consider is how we got here. How did cubicles, coffee break rooms, and HR departments become the norm?

Rewind to the industrial revolution. There is much debate about what sparked this change in the way goods are manufactured that has completely transformed nearly every facet of life for most human beings on the planet. What is not debated is that it totally transformed how labor was viewed, transforming what used to be artisans, skilled workers, and tradesman into employees, human capital, founders and CEOs. (Side note: Because of the emphasis on college degrees and corporate work for the last 30 years, there is now a shortage of skilled tradesmen and women, in the US). The industrial revolution shifted "employees" from small operations into massive groups that now had the ability to impact, by their sheer numbers, the way government and business owners alike regulated the work environment. A few decades after American workers became employees, unions formed, joined forces and sparked the creation of the US Department of labor. Just for reference, here's a brief timeline courtesy of

  • 1884: Labor unions lobby for a federal department to oversee labor issues, but they initially settle for a new Bureau of Labor within the Department of the Interior.1

  • 1888: Congress converts the Bureau of Labor to a Department of Labor, but the new department does not yet have cabinet status.

  • 1903: Federal labor activities are moved to a new Department of Commerce and Labor.

  • 1913: The Department of Commerce and Labor is split apart, and a cabinet-level Department of Labor is born. An official history notes that Labor's founding "was the direct product of a half-century campaign by organized labor for a 'Voice in the Cabinet.

  • 1913: The Department of Labor has an initial staff of 2,000 employees, and it consists of four Bureaus: Labor Statistics, Immigration, Naturalization, and Children.

  • 1914: The Clayton Antitrust Act includes pro-union provisions, such as an exemption of unions from anti-monopoly rules and restrictions on the use of injunctions during strikes.

  • 1917: Labor Secretary William Wilson oversees a large expansion of federal control over private industry during World War I. The department creates more than 30 divisions, bureaus, and commissions to deal with wartime mobilization and new labor regulations. The War Labor Administration pushes to impose collective bargaining, an eight-hour work day, and other regulations on private employers. A department history notes that this wartime agency "provides many ideas and models for the New Deal."4

  • 1918: The growth of the female workforce during the war spurs the creation of the Department of Labor's Women in Industry division. The division is later renamed the Women's Bureau, and it survives today with a $12 million budget.

  • 1933: The National Industrial Recovery Act encourages the implementation of minimum wages, maximum hours, and collective bargaining. NIRA is struck down by the Supreme Court in 1935, but these labor market regulations are reimposed in other legislation.

  • 1934: Labor Secretary Frances Perkins creates a Bureau of Labor Standards, the forerunner to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration established in 1970.

  • 1936: The Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act requires businesses that contract with the federal government to comply with various mandates, including establishing an eight-hour work day and paying minimum wages based on locally prevailing rates. The Act is a prelude to the broader Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

  • 1938: The Fair Labor Standards Act establishes a national minimum wage of 25 cents per hour and a maximum work week of 40 hours (with "time and a half" pay for overtime) for most workers in manufacturing. Many studies in subsequent decades find that the minimum wage hinders lower-skill workers from gaining employment. The minimum wage rate and the coverage of FLSA have been greatly expanded over time.

  • 1959: The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (Landrum-Griffin Act) requires labor unions to allow free speech by members, hold secret elections for union officers, and make annual financial reports to the Department of Labor.

  • 1962: The Manpower Development and Training Act is designed to retrain workers displaced by automation. As the economic boom of the 1960s advances, the focus of the program changes from unemployed workers to lower-income and disadvantaged workers.

  • 1964: The Economic Opportunity Act creates a range of new job training and employment programs such as Job Corps, which is aimed at providing education and job training to needy youth. The program is modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, and it is moved into the Department of Labor in 1969.

  • 1970: Congress creates the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, charged with regulating workplace safety. Over the decades, the agency imposes an array of costly regulations on businesses, and it generates controversy over rules that impose large compliance burdens but have limited benefits.

  • 1988: Congress passes the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which requires employers to give workers a 60-day notice of plant closings or mass layoffs.

  • 1993: Congress enacts the Family and Medical Leave Act, which grants workers the ability to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child or a sick family member.

  • 2011: The Department Labor employs 17,000 workers and has a budget of $148 billion in fiscal 2011.

The point of sharing all of this was to illustrate 2 key points.

1. The US Work Environment Responds to the People

All of these massive shifts that have resulted in our current work environment were initiated by the people and for the people. I'll restate what was mentioned above. An official history notes that Labor's founding "was the direct product of a half-century campaign by organized labor for a 'Voice in the Cabinet.

Sometimes we think we are at the mercy of our environment. We believe that we should be grateful just to get a job and that we need to suffer through conditions that don't work for us and our families in order to "take what we can get". The truth is that we collectively shape our environment by understanding that we have the power to initiate change.

2. The US Work Environment is Ever-Evolving

The work environment for skilled laborers in and out of corporate is constantly evolving in response to the economic needs of the country as a whole and the individual needs of the labor force.

One thing that's true of business and of life is that it responds to the bottom line. Despite how we feel about something, what makes a difference is our impact on and contribution to the collective. Everything in our reality...the entertainment industry, the economy, what we are seeing in our communities, and even our work environments are constantly responding to the collective. Once we understand that, instead of just going along to get along, we can choose behaviors that initiate the types of changes we want to see around is. This experience is ever evolving, just as we should be.

The evolution of the American work force is far from complete. The changing demographics (more households with two working parents, more single parent households, different expectations of millennials, etc...) is causing yet another transformation. A dramatic increase in the number of telecommuters and remote workers.

Flexjobs, one of the biggest promotors of flexible work schedules, completed a study in 2017 illustrating the rapid rate at which telecommuting is growing in the US. According to their 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce report:

  • Regular telecommuting grew 115% in the past decade, nearly 10 times faster than the rest of the workforce.

  • The average annual income for most telecommuters is $4,000 higher than that of non-telecommuters.

  • The percent of women and men who telecommute is about equal.

  • Half of telecommuters are 45 years of age or older, compared to just 41% of the overall workforce. Telecommuters are, on average, more highly educated than other employees.

  • Approximately 53% have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 37% of non-telecommuters. Telecommuting is most common in Management occupations, but employees in Computer, Mathematical, and Military occupations work at home much more frequently than their peers.

  • In more than half of the top U.S. metros, telecommuting exceeds public transportation as the commute option of choice. It has grown far faster than any other commute mode.

  • Forty percent more U.S. employers offered flexible workplace options than they did in 2010. Still, only 7% make it available to most of their employees.

  • Employers can save over $11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year. Across the existing work-at-home population, that potentially adds up to $44 billion in savings. If the telecommuting workforce expanded to include those who could and wanted to work from home, the potential employer savings could approach $690 million a year.

  • Half-time telecommuters gain back 11 days a year—time they would have otherwise spent commuting.

Dynamics are changing and the work force is responding. Employees at all levels, even up to the CEOs of companies are developing awareness of some of the benefits telecommuting can impact the work environment. Now we're starting to understand the positive impacts to the bottom line. The benefits to the employee are more obvious. On top of the monetary benefits (less gasoline, car maintenance, work attire, lunches out, etc...) those 11 days per year saved on the road make a huge impact. Truth be told, most of the telecommuters I've spoken to use a big chunk of that time and give it right back to their employer in the form of more time spent on tasks while at home. In most cases, when employees feel valued and trusted, they behave in ways that add value to the companies that employ them.

The impacts to the bottom line for companies, which are becoming more apparent as we have the data to crunch the numbers, are even more astonishing. While employees definitely get a break on costs, employers save even more money on remote employees. The $11,000 saved is no small change and that's just for a half-time commuter. Those savings don't even include all of the benefits to the employer that can't be quantified. Here are just a few of those:

  • Employers can hire talent from anywhere in the world making it easier to find the right fit

  • Home working leads on average to a 13% increase in productivity

  • Home workers report higher work satisfaction

  • Attrition among the home workers drops by 50% on average

  • Telecommuting workers typically continue working even when sick and resume working more quickly after surgery or other medical issues.

  • Ensures continuity of operations in the event of a disaster

Even the environment benefits from telework.

Environmentally friendly policies are good for companies – Sun Microsystems reported that its 24,000 U.S. employees participating in the Open Work Program avoided producing 32,000 metric tons of CO2 last year by driving less often to and from work. – Office equipment energy consumption rate is twice that of home office equipment energy consumption.

As we can see by taking a look at the history of the US Work Environment, the key to change taking place is understanding the "What's in it for me?" For all parties involved and fostering an environment of awareness.

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