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Clerical Workers and New Office Technologies Judith Gregory The American labor force today includes 19 million clerical workers. They are expected to number 22 to 23 million by the end of the decade, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics. Nearly one in five American workers now works as a clerical, mak- ing it the largest single category of workers. Clericals are preclom- inantly women 98.6 percent of all secretaries are women, for example. New office computer technologies hold both promise and perils for these minions of office workers. Problems for today's clerical work force include Tow wages, insufficient benefits, inadequate retirement income, and a lack of organization that contributes to and perpetuates these economic realities; a lack of affordable, available, quality child care; and occupational health and safety problems. My remarks focus on female workers, who comprise the over- whelming majority of clerical workers and are the special target for homework programs involving clerical level personnel. Judith Gregory is a research associate of the Department for Professional Employ- ees, AFL-CIO. Ms. Gregory was research director for 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women, from 1979 through April 1984. This paper is an edited version of the presentation. 112
CLERICAL WORKERS AND NEW OFFICE TECHNOLOGIES ECONOMIC REALITIES FOR WORKING WOMEN 113 The range of choices in the conditions and circumstances of work is severely limited for most women. To understand the con- straints on choices that women make about office homework, it is necessary to understand the economic realities of women's lives in the 1980s. Tn 1983 the median yearly income for women working full time was $12,172 before taxes, compared with $20,682 for men work- ing full time.) While women's real wages have been held relatively stagnant in the past decade, their economic responsibilities have increased. Less than one in five families conforms to the historical stereotype of a breadwinning father, full-time homemaking mother, and one or more children; 45 percent of mothers with chil- dren under the age of six are working. Two out of three working women are single, widowed, divorced, separated, or have hus- bands who earn less than $15,000 a year. The number of female- headed households increased by 97 percent between 1970 and So.2 Only 10 percent of private sector clerical women are repre- sented by unions, compared with 25 percent representation in the work force as a whole. In the finance industries, where female cler- icals form the backbone of the work force, only 3 percent are unionized, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. CHILD CARE The lack of affordable, quality child care contributes to the low- income status of American women, according to the U.S. Com- mission on Civil Rights.3 It is estimated that there is just one day- care position open for every 10 children who need placement. The average cost of day care for two children is $4,000 a year nearly one-third of the average working woman's income. Employers have been reluctant to assist in providing child care, although analyses indicate that the benefits should outweigh the costs. Office homework is often touted as an easy solution to the se- vere shortage of affordable, quality child care in the United States. An advertisement for Ranier "telestaffing" computer sys- tems, for example, shows a working mother at her terminal with her baby standing in a crib nearby, quietly observing what
114 THE FUTURE Mother is doing. The facts of life differ considerably. Caring for a child while working at a computer terminal means doing two de- manding jobs at once. Homeworkers with primary family care responsibilities report that coping with both work and family de- mands is highly stressful, although given the choice between working or not they wouict invariably have to choose work.4 The idea that child care needs can be met simultaneously with working is based on false notions of the attention women want and need to give their children and the care that children require. In research conducted by Margrethe H. Olson, homeworkers who had primary care for young children described the combination of responsibilities as extremely stressful. Fifty percent retained ba- bysitters for all or part of their working time.5 In a study of office automation and clericals, including home- workers, employed by Wisconsin Physicians Service (WPS), Cyn- thia Costello found that the relationship between paid work and family responsibilities was "perhaps the most important differ- ence between the homeworker and her WPS counterpart.... For the woman who worked at WPS, her family responsibilities- from sick children to housework often interrupted and shaped her day. But unlike the homeworker, the clerical who worked at WPS did not juggle housework, child care, and claims processing at the same time. For the homeworker, no spatial or temporal dis- tance separated her 'work' from her 'family' tasks."6 One home- worker commented: "When T first started homework, ~ had en- ergy to burn and thought ~ had wasted time before. ~ got every- thing done ~ had done before plus the homework. ~ could hardly wait to get at the work. That's worn off. ~ used to stay up late at night and do the work. Now, ~ can't do that my energy is gone by 9 a.m." Women clericals who work at home still desire and need day- care centers or babysitters for children while they work, and need the wages to afford such services. Office homework should not be seen as a substitute for quality child care for working mothers who cannot find or afford day care or babysitters. OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH An estimated 12.5 million video display terminals (VDTs), com- puter terminals, personal computers, and word processors are in use. The number is expected to rise to 41 million by 1987, accord-
CLERICAL WORKERS AND NEW OFFICE TECHNOLOGIES 115 ing to international Data Resources, a marketing research firm in Framingham, Massachusetts.7 Home use represents a significant share of the personal computer market. Numerous studies report higher levels of health problems among clerical VDT users.8 Potential health risks associated with video display terminal work will affect users of workstations in office and home settings alike. Measures to control and abate these hazards are within the power of informed, concerned em- ployers. In 1983 a special pane! of the Committee on Vision of the National Research Council concluded that there is currently no evidence of permanent damage to vision from video terminal viewing. The report also noted that in some of the studies re- viewed over half the VDT operators responding to surveys com- plained of some degree of visual discomfort, mental distress, and other physical disorders.9 In particular, the panel report notes that the body of knowledge on ergonomics is not being applied consistently in workplaces and is still either unknown or un- heeded by all too many office managers. Hazards associated with new office technologies are only tan- gentially addressed by current federal or state occupational safety and health laws and regulations. At the time of the sympo- sium on which this book is based, legislation that would provide health and safety protection for VDT users had been introduced in 10 states since 1981; laws will be reintroduced in many and introduced in more states in the next few years. Even when such laws or regulations are passed, enforcement for individual work- ers in the home will be virtually impossible. LOOKING AHEAD It is unclear how widespread a trend "telecommuting" could become in the future. Economist Elisabeth Allison of Data Re- sources, Inc., says there are now 15 millioninformation-manipula- tion jobs such as computer programming, financial analysis, and writing that could be done at home. Jack Nilles of the Uni- versity of Southern California predicts that within a decade 5 mil- lion white-colIar workers could be working mainly at home. Ac- cording to Business Week, the number of homeworker programs for white-colIar workers grew from a handful in 1981 to 35 in 1982, involving perhaps 600 workers.~° This was a rapid rate of growth, but still an extremely small number of people. Nilles ant! others
116 THE FUTURE estimate that by 1983 there were 10,000 to 20,000 members of the telework force, mostly part-time workers, and predict explosive growth to 5 to 10 million fur-time workers who wiB do at least part of their work at home or at satellite centers by 1990. Explosive expansion of what is today a very small trend is ctiffi- cult to imagine. Institutionalizing office homework requires sub- stantial cost, time, and organizational commitment. The likeli- hood of automated homework in the future of clerical workers and employers' interests in implementing such programs are dis- cussed here in the context of broader trends affecting clericals in the present era of rapid computerization. ~ believe the desire to cut costs underlies most managerial inter- ests in implementing clerical office homework. These interests include: · shifting overhead costs of office space, electricity, and light- ing to individual workers. Employees may even rent machinery from their employer, thus the employee not only underwrites the overhead but the ability to have a job; · experimenting with productivity measures and costs of transaction- and information-processing to develop benchmarks as leverage to increase pressures and intensify control over the main office work force; · reducing hourly wages by setting Tower rates outright and by switching to piece-rate methods of pay, which means workers are doing more for less; · abdicating responsibility for long-term, much less lifetime, welfare of employees by shifting costs of health and life insurance benefits, Social Security, and retirement income to individual workersi2; · reducing the chance of union organization, and generally weakening the already limited power of women clericals; · using homeworkers as a transitional work force for corporate flexibility easy to hire and release during and after a transition period of technological change and industrial competition and consolidation. In this way, homeworkers may be similar to temoo- rary workers as another part of the "casual" work force. .< These cost-cutting motives will be realized through three major trends already emerging as companies make the transition to ma- ture levels of computerization:
CLERICAL WORKERS AND NEW OFFICE TECHNOLOGIES 117 · an intensification of working conditions and productivity pressures, including centralized control over individual workers who may be spatially decentralized, including those working at home; · shifts from full-time to part-time workers; · relocations of office work from central urban sites to suburbs and nearby cities. Intensification The experience of office homework, whether it is a perquisite or the only available means of juggling work and family roles, de- pends in part on how much influence workers exercise in relation to their employers. Differences in levels of skills, prestige, control over working conditions, methods of pay, whether there is a short- age or oversupply of particular types of workers these factors will affect the leverage employees have over wage levels and con- ditions of employment. Contrasts between categories of employ- ees are sharply defined: office homework involves different cir- cumstances and employer-employee relations for a clerical woman than for an executive. The 1984 9 to 5 National Survey on Women and Stress found that a number of working conditions that describe job demands are fairly "universal" among managerial, professional-technical, and clerical women, including: always having to work very fast; always having to meet deadlines; always having too much work to do; always having to pay close attention to detail. Other demands are "particular" by j ob level, more common among clericals doing automated work, and even more common among black clerical women: working under strict production quotas or averages; hav- ing one's work monitored, constantly watched, or controlled by computer systems; performing repetitious, monotonous work. In general, job demands are evenly distributed among women man- agers, professional/technical workers, and clerical workers. But degrees of control are distributed according to position in the oc- cupational hierarchy, including: whether you can decide how to do your work; whether you can set the pace of your work; whether you have input into policy decisions that affect your work; whether you have a lot of pressure and responsibility without the clout or authority to make decisions; whether you can use your skills, previous education, experience, or training in your work.~3
118 THE; FUTURE Office homework may widen this gulf between levels of work- ers. In a review of a variety of remote office work experiments in Europe and the United States, Scandinavian researchers Gitte Vede] and Ewa Gunnarsson explore the question, "who will achieve greater flexibility as the result of homework program- employers or employees?" Tentatively, they found different an- swers for men and women. Male homeworkers tend to achieve greater flexibility as individuals often by maintaining two fully equipped workplaces, one in the office, another at home, some- times using portable computers as well. For the average female worker, equivalent levels of technological support cannot be as- sumed (and are rare), nor can flexibility necessarily be achieved; pressures intensify instead, particularly for working mothers.~4 Whereas professional and technical workers are typically paid on a per-project basis, clerical homeworkers are almost invariably paid per items processed, under piece-rate systems, which mean that the individual worker internalizes productivity pressures. Computerized monitoring further intensifies automated office work. It is used ever more often, not only to measure work but also to pressure clericals performing automated work. Methods of pay bused on piece rates and systems of constant computerized monitoring represent steps backward from reasonable expecta- tions of pace and production and reasonable and fair hourly rates of pay for all workers, not just the fastest or hardest pressed. If productivity is measured only by time at the terminal, impor- tant aspects of work time are left out of the equation: setup time, time getting work between employer and employee, and time for lunch and other breaks. Frequent breaks and rotations of tasks are essential contributors to effective and healthy automated work environments. Finally, computerized monitoring inevitably emphasizes quan- tity over quality, often removing incentives for employees to per- form perfect work. A clerical homeworker for an insurance com- p any in the Midwest commented, "They want a lot of work done and they also want quality. When you do quality work, they com- plain because you aren't doing enough. When ~ was hired, ~ told them you can't get both.... You have to settle for a happy medium."~5 A data entry operator explains, "The shift activity . . . measures the time, strokes for the day, average strokes per hour, and total errors for the day. Depending on what the supervi- sor is looking for, strokes, errors, minutes, this report generates a
CLERICAL WORKERS AND NEW OFFICE TECHNOLOGIES 119 lot of tension. If one adjusts their strokes to lessen errors, then there are complaints one is going too siow."~6 For these reasons 9 to 5 calls for an end to continuous computer monitoring of individual work performance wherever possible. In Sweden, for example, the aggregate flow of work for a department may be tracked by computer, but it is illegal to monitor an individ- ual worker. Swedish management and labor representatives point out that measuring the work of a single individual does not reveal whether or not there is enough staff for the volume of work.~7 Monitoring the individual mainly serves as a means of enforcing pressures for an ever-faster pace. Part-Time Workers From 1940 to 1980 the number of women working part time increased fourfold to 15 million. Today, the part-time work force numbers about 18 million; the vast majority are women. From 1970 to 1982 part-time employment increased by 58 percent, while the U.S. labor force overall increased by 26 percent. Twenty- five percent of all clericals worked part time. More striking is the difference in the rate of increase in volun- tary part-time work, 32.6 percent, in contrast to the increase in involuntary part-time work, an extraordinary 166 percent from 2.19 million to 5.S million workers, also predominantly women. Most part-time workers work less than full time because of fam- ily responsibilities, health problems, or other constraints. Part- timers earn an average of 20 percent less than their full-time coun- terparts. They seldom receive health insurance, fringe benefits, or paid vacations. They are unlikely to be covered by pension plans or unemployment insurance.~9 Homework programs documented to date involve the elimina- tion of benefits to clerical homeworkers (but see Raney, in this volume ado. Medical Services of Washington, D.C., has 10 "off- site keyers" in claims processing positions, all of whom converted from full-time to part-time status, from a regularly hourly rate of pay to pay per output, and from employees with employment ben- efits to individual contractors without coverage.20 Business Week reports that homeworkers for Blue Cross of South Carolina, who are considered part-timers, are excluded from $2,000 to $3,000 worth of benefits annually. They also pay $2,400 annual rent for the computer terminals they use. While the company
120 THE FUTURE maintains that the homeworkers earn up to $3,000 more than sal- aried office workers, the net gains or losses remain unclear.2i There is nothing inherent in homework, nor anything techno- logically determined, about the employer practice of eliminating benefits to homeworkers. While part-time status is the rationale given for the lack of benefits for homeworkers, some "part- timers" typically work 34 hours a week, comparable to average workweeks for full-time clericals, particularly when paid lunch breaks are subtracted from mainstream clericals' working time. Relocation Office homework represents a point along the spectrum of spa- tial decentralization of office work from central cities to sub- urbs; from older traditional office centers to new areas including suburbs, Sunbelt cities, and outlying secondary cities; to "off- shore offices"; to "self-service" home-banking and home-retailing programs directed toward the growing market of home personal computer owners. Neither suburbanization nor offshore bulk data-processing are entirely new, but each is accelerated and ex- tended by the increased mobility of office work achieved by the combination of office and telecommunications technologies. Employers' interests in clerical homework programs echo the motivations underlying trends in office relocations. Suburban women are the favored work force. Women who only need or are only able to work part time are often selected. Working strives who are noncritical income earners are favored over sole supporters or working women who are heads of households. The dispersion of clerical homeworkers makes communications between home- workers difficult and collective activity extremely unlikely. Employers are increasingly selecting and rejecting particular pools of workers for specific types of work according to changes in the labor process and enhanced abilities to choose new sites based on labor supply demographics.22 In a recent study of the move- ment of automated office work from San Francisco into Contra Costa County, Kristin Nelson of the University of California- Berkeley reports that the type of clerical labor available was a decisive factor in relocations of "Iow-contact-need" back-office work. In 1981 the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce described a "quiet exodus" of 9,000 jobs in 22 firms out of San Francisco. An estimated 32,000 new jobs are at stake, including job creation after the relocations. The jobs involve computerized information
CLERICAL WORKERS AND NEW OFFICE TECHNOLOGIES 121 processing at the upper tier of skilled clerical work, although wages remain very low. Nelson found that the type of clerical labor available at a new site was a decisive factor in the office relocations she analyzed. Other factors traditionally considered in location decisions in- clude availability and cost of land, access to good transportation, supply of managerial and technical personnel, and local zoning policies favorable to business expansion. These factors were all available in nearby Oakland and Richmond. In fact, rents in Oak- land and in some sections of San Francisco were equal to those in Contra Costa County; reducing rental costs does not explain the relocations. The companies apparently hoped to find women will- ing to perform skilled work at low wages, a contradiction made worse by computerization. Employers also hoped to avoid or move away from central city women, particularly minority women, who are most likely to need fuB-time work, more likely to be heads of households, and more likely eventually to insist on their rights and full wages and possibly to organize. Nelson writes: Back offices require local clerical labor that will be productive, stable, and non-militant in jobs with low rewards . . . In order to find educated female workers that will remain in "factory office" jobs, modern employers look to middle-income neighborhoods characterized by young families, where they expect to find well-educated, white women whose position in the domestic economy limits their career mobility.... The transfer of jobs from central city, low-income, predominantly minority female work forces is not an unfor- tunate side effect of back office relocation necessitated by land cost consider- ationsit is one of the major reasons for back office relocation.23 Office suburbanization involves efforts by some employers to break up conditions that might facilitate self-organization by clericals by moving work away from women for whom employ- ment is absolutely critical to the support of themselves and their families. To the extent that companies select participants in homework programs with similar criteria in mind, office home- work may contribute to the powerlessness and economic vuInera- bility of women in the overall work force. SUMMARY Clerical homework programs today are few in number and ex- perimental. Small as such experiments are, their greatest effect may prove to be the more widespread introduction of monitoring,
122 THE FUTURE piece rates, and productivity pressures into mainstream office employment in ways that undermine pay levels, job security, the quality of work, and the ability of female clericals to organize in their own behalf. The solutions to the problems of the current clerical work force include the development of stable part-time employment in addi- tion to full-time employment, provision of affordable, quality child care and flexibility in working hours, universal coverage in benefits plans, occupational health and safety standards for auto- mated office work, and enforcement of workers' rights to organize collectively. Taking the current perils of office computerization into consid- eration, 9 to 5 does not believe that the problems of the office work force will be solved by placing office workstations in the home. If adequate protections and fairness on-site are not always possible, it makes it less likely that adequate worker protection can be en- forced off-site. The potential for abuses by employers is great, creating the possibility that we wiB step backward to a twentieth century equivalent of nineteenth century cottage industry. For these reasons, 9 to 5 supports the call for an early ban on electronic home workstations, as introduced by the Service Em- ployees International Union and adopted by the AFL-CIO, to achieve adequate protection and fairness for female clericals and for aD employees at electronic workstations at home or in the office. NOTES 1. Less than 1 percent of women who work full time earn $25,000 or more per year, compared to 12 percent of men. More than 50 percent of all fully employed His- panic women, 43 percent of black women, and 37 percent of white women earn less than $10,000 a year. 2. Data from the Women's Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Depart- ment of Labor, cited in: National Commission on the Future of Women in the Workplace. The Invisible Worker in a Troubled Economy, Business and Profes- sional Women's Foundation: Washington, D.C., January 1984. 3. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Disadvantaged women and their children. Washington, D.C., May 1983. 4. Olson, Margrethe H. Remote office work: Implications for individuals and orga- nizations. Graduate School of Business and Administration: New York Univer- sity, New York. CAIS No. 81-56 (CR). 5. Olson, Margrethe H. et al. Workshop on problems and potentials of office home- work. International Conference on Office Work and New Technology, sponsored
CLERICAL WORKERS AND NEW OFFICE TECHNOLOGIES 123 by 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women. Boston, Mass., October 1982. 6. Costello, Cynthia. "On the Front": Class, Gender and Conflict in the Insurance Workplace. PH.D. dissertation, Department of Sociology, University of Wiscon- sin, Madison, 1984. 7. Serrin, William. Electronic office conjuring wonders, loneliness, and tedium. New York Times, March 28, 1984. 8. See, for example: Cakir, A., D.K. Hart, and T.F.M. Stewart. The VDT Manual. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1979; Grandjean, E. and E. Vigliani. Ergonomic aspects of visual display terminals. DHHS-NIOSH Publication No. 81-129. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1981; Na- tional Research Council, Committee on Vision, Panel on Impact of Video Viewing on Vision of Workers. Video Displays, Work, and Vision. National Academy Press: Washington D.C., 1983 (See particularly Dissent by Lawrence W. Stark, pp. 235-236); Technical memorandum on video display terminals and low level radiation, by Diana Roose. Cleveland: Working Women Education Fund, 1983. 9. National Research Council, Committee on Vision, Panel on Impact of Video View- ing on Vision of Workers. Video Displays, Work, and Vision. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1983. 10. "If home is where the worker is." Business Week, May 3, 1982. 11. Wiegner, Kathleen K., and Ellen Parris. "It's 8:45Do you know where your employees are?" Forbes, September 12, 1983, 143-150. 12. Women workers suffer from inadequate retirement income due to years of low pay, patterns of alternating paid work and nonpaid work in the home, lack of coverage by pension plans and low rates of vesting in such plans due to high tenure requirements and the high turnover in women's clerical and service jobs. The average working women retired with less than $1,000 in savings in 1979. Only 1 in 10 women who retired from private industry before 1980 received any pen- sionmoney. See: Working Women Education Fund, Office Work in America. Cleveland, 1983; and Citizens Commission on Pension Policy, Pension Facts, Washington, l).C., 1980. 13. 9 to 5 National Survey on Women and Stress, and Office Automation Addendum. Working Women Education Fund: Cleveland, 1984. 14. Gunnarsson, Ewa and Gitte Vedel. Flexibility in women's remote office work. Arbeitslivcentrum: Stockholm, Sweden, 1984. 15. Costello, Cynthia. Op. cit. 16. Report on data from the VDT hotline and questionnaire.9 to 5, National Associa- tion of Working Women: Cleveland, 1983. 17. See: Marschall, D. and J. Gregory. Office Automation: Jekyll or Hyde? High- lights of the International Conference on Office Work and New Technology. Working Women Education Fund: Cleveland, 1983. 18. Serrin, William. Up to a fifth of U.S. workers now rely on part-time jobs. New York Times, August 14, 1983. 19. Leon, Carol and R. Bednarzik. Profile of women on part-time schedules. Monthly Labor Review, June 1978. 20. Gailord, Susan B. Telecommuting allows employees to mix business with home- work. Newhouse News Service, Spring 1983. 21. Business Week. Op. cit. 22. See the work of Michael Storper and Richard Walker, University of California at Los Angeles and Berkeley respectively, on the importance of local labor supply in
124 THE FUTURE industrial location. For example: Storper, Michael and Walker, Richard. The spa- tial division of labor: Labor and location of industries, in Sunbelt/Snowbelt, Ur- ban Development and Regional Restructuring. L. Sawers and W. K. Tabb (ads.), Oxford University Press, New York, 1984. 23. Nelson, Kristin Louise. Back Offices and Female Labor Markets: Office Subur- banization in the San Francisco Bay Area. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley, 1984.