San Francisco tells employers to accommodate working parents

Employers will have to state business reason for denying a request
By Laila Kearney
||Last Updated: 10/10/2013

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) — San Francisco workers with children or other dependents will have greater ability to change their hours, telecommute or share job duties under a law approved on Tuesday that marks the first time a U.S. city has told private employers to accommodate flexible workplace arrangements.

Employers would be required to state a business reason for denying a request, such as increased costs. The rule would not affect businesses with less than 20 employees.

"I hope that this legislation is a nudge to make real changes in our workplace culture to eliminate the stigma and bias around workers who request flexible working arrangements," said Supervisor David Chiu, who proposed the ordinance which won unanimous approval from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Starting on Jan. 1, San Francisco will become the first city in the nation to make workplace flexibility requests an employee right, according to Chiu and national group the Society for Human Resource Management. Less than five months ago, Vermont became the first and only state to implement similar legislation, which also goes into effect in January.

In addition to raising workplace morale, the ordinance would make San Francisco more inviting to families, Chiu said in a statement. San Francisco has the lowest per capita population of children of any major U.S. city, he said.

Aside from those with children, the ordinance also will apply to workers with sick spouses and elderly parents.

Under the city's mandate, employers must meet with workers within 21 days of their requests for such arrangements as partial instead of full-time work, shift changes, telecommuting or job sharing.

The employer would give a written answer and would be required to provide detailed reasons in the case of a denial.

Under the ordinance, business owners would also need to inform workers and post information about their new rights. Refusing to comply with the mandate could lead to fines of up to $50 per employee each day the business is in violation.

San Francisco could also take civil action through the city attorney against an employer that violates the mandate.

The Society for Human Resource Management advocates widely for suggested flexible workplace policies but is concerned about the mandatory nature of San Francisco's ordinance, said Michael Kalt, employment attorney and government affairs director for the organization's California chapter.

"It creates a whole new potential to sue employers," he said.

San Francisco's move to become the first in the nation to require more flexible workplaces follows a number of other efforts by the mostly liberal, Northern California city to take action where other cities have held back.

In 2011, it sought to require cell phone retailers to warn consumers about potentially dangerous radiation levels in the devices. Earlier this year, the city's leaders revoked the ordinance after losing a key round in court against the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.

After pushing back on an initial proposal last spring, which would have imposed stricter mandates on employers, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce has taken a neutral stance on the ordinance, said the group's spokesman Jim Lazarus.

"There are ways employers can trip up and expose themselves to legal action if they don't dot their i's and cross their t's," Lazarus said. "That's where our problems come from."

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