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The responsive workplace: employers and a changing labor force.

The Responsive Workplace: Employers and a Changing Labor Force.

By Sheila B. Kamerman and Alfred J. Kahn. New York, Columbia University Press, 1987. 329 pp. $30.

Over the past three decades, the composition of the labor force has changed dramatically. The most significant aspect of this has been the shift from a virtually all-male labor force to one that is composed almost equally of men and women. This change has had an enormous effect on marriage and parenting, and has placed new strains on the family. There is no doubt that families--especially those with children-- are in need of help in coping with the kinds of problems engendered by this change. What is in question, though, is the sort of aid families need, and which institutions should provide it.

At the forefront of the relationship between families and work are employers. They provide the benefits (exclusive of wages) that employees need for the security and well being of their families. This book is a study of these benefits; what they are, how they are provided, and, most important, a description of the factors that underlie the type and amount of these benefits.

Using information gathered from an extensive set of interviews with employers and employees at all levels, Kamerman and Kahn have produced a comprehensive overview of the system of employer-provided benefits. The key point made in this analysis is that benefits and the way they are administered stem not so much from altruistic motivations on the part of employers, but rather from their "bottom line.' Thus, benefits are sensitive to a great many pressures. For instance, the authors cite the case of a supermarket chain which exchanges fringe benefits for union acceptance of a large part-time work force. Profit margins in this industry are notoriously small so that the maintenance of a large number of part-time employees who can respond to times of peak demand avoids the high costs of overtime pay that would accompany a full-time work force. Also mentioned was a high tech firm that uses benefits to recruit and retain a highly skilled work force at less cost than if the company were offering higher wages. The fact that employees are willing to accept fringe benefits over wages is not surprising; benefits are a form of wealth. In other words, benefits substitute for the savings that employees would need to make to provide for such things as future medical or retirement expenses.

However, because bottom-line constraints are a major factor in the provision of benefits, large-scale inequities result. Many workers lack such basic benefits as medical insurance, retirement, life insurance, and paid leave. Thus, the amount and kind of benefits available to a worker and his or her family depend on the employer the employee has the good (or bad) luck to work for.

Few would disagree that this is an inherently unsatisfactory situation. However, because benefits stem from individual employers, each of whom is sensitive to a variety of differing factors, it is unrealistic to expect that employers alone would voluntarily reject their own self-interest and move towards a more equitable system.

However, the authors suggest that the current system (or non-system) contains the seeds of its own reformation. Namely, many of the benefits received by today's workers are supported by tax incentives or legislative mandates. Consequently, tax law and other legislation can be used as a foundation for the creation of a more equitable, universal system of benefits that could be geared towards meeting the problems of today's families.

This is an extremely valuable book that has been published at a time when the perception of conflict between family life and work is growing and the need for an authoritative overview of benefits and the factors affecting them is becoming urgent. Kamerman and Kahn have produced a volume that not only fills this need, but is acessible to both the expert and the knowledgeable lay person alike. It is difficult to envision a better treatment of such a complex, sensitive subject. Although it is obvious where the authors' sympathies lie, the book is free from the ideology and polemicism too often associated with literature regarding social policy. In short, it is an important resource for anyone --student, business administrator, or policymaker-- who needs a clear guide to the present system of employer-provided benefits.
COPYRIGHT 1987 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Hayghe, Howard
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1987
Words:719
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