Julia Henly

Managing Work and Family: Julia Henly Studies How Precarious Working Conditions Negatively Impact Low-Income Chicago Families

Julia Henly, associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration (SSA), studies a topic that has gained considerable attention during the 2016 presidential election: work and childcare. 

At the SSA, she considers two related questions in her research:  “How can workplaces be more hospitable to workers, especially parents?” and, “How can we improve policies designed to help low-income parents participate in the labor market and raise their children?”  

She doesn’t need to look far to see just how difficult raising a family can be when a parent works a low-paying job—or even several low-paying jobs. Most recently, Henly studied the childcare subsidy program in several communities in Illinois and New York, including Chicago, interviewing and surveying parents working low-wage jobs in a range of industries. Henly sees them as being stuck in a frustrating catch-22. Low-wage jobs paid by the hour “have always been precarious,” she says, but erratic schedules and fluctuating hours are an increasing problem in many industries. “For many families, it’s hard to get full-time, stable work, and yet without a full-time job with steady hours it’s hard to raise a family.”

With her longtime collaborator Susan Lambert, who is also on the faculty at SSA, Henly has studied the ways in which work schedules can be a source of instability, especially for workers paid by the hour.  Their research reveals that nationally about two-fifths of hourly workers receive schedules with one week or less notice and even more report variable work hours and little control over their work schedules. In one study, Henly and Lambert conducted a workplace intervention with a national retailer to assess the feasibility of providing workers more predictable schedules. Findings demonstrated that employees of stores randomly assigned to the workplace intervention received their schedules with greater advance notice than their counterparts in control stores. While managers in intervention stores still made schedule adjustments, Henly says that the study “demonstrates the feasibility of giving retail sales associates greater schedule lead time. The one-week-in-advance weekly schedule in retail is habit more than anything else.”

To Henly, there is a lot that needs to change to improve opportunities and outcomes for low-income parents and their children. For instance, while she has observed that there are more working parents trying to juggle their caregiving responsibilities with school or a second job, it’s still never easy. “There haven’t been huge changes for the better on that front in recent years,” she says.  And while she has seen policy changes during her time in Chicago, sometimes it seems like it’s one step forward, two steps back. “In the past decade, more subsidized children are enrolled in center-based programs and Illinois passed the Preschool For All program,” she says. At the city level, Mayor [Rahm Emanuel] has committed to increasing public preschool slots, she says, “but state budget constraints have interfered with public preschool expansion at a level that PFA promised.” 

Part of Henly’s research involves finding out exactly how families access—or don’t access—child care assistance. As a William T. Grant Distinguished Fellow, she spent time last year at a local non-profit organization, Illinois Action for Children, that is contracted to administer the child care subsidy program for Cook County. She shadowed administrators and caseworkers as parents applied for benefits, following federal and state child care policy changes down to the local level. That experience gave her greater understanding of the political and organizational constraints in delivering benefits, she says, which include an archaic infrastructure and more demand than supply. “The experience was eye-opening:  well-meaning, highly-skilled people wanting to make the system work -- and they do a lot -- but there are some pretty big barriers, including a huge revenue problem” she says. 

Meanwhile, Henly is conducting a study funded by the United States Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families to determine what explains low-income families’ short spells on the childcare subsidy program—typically six to nine months in Cook County. She learned that part of the problem is that the process to apply for subsidies is practically a job in itself—what Henly describes as the “complications and hassles with accessing and maintaining assistance,” including time-consuming paperwork and “eligibility criteria and rules that do not align well with the realities of low-wage work.” Low-income jobs are easily lost, yet applicants need to be employed to remain eligible for assistance. In Illinois, she says, “you have a grace period in theory to search for another job, but many people don’t know about it, and leave the program when they lose their jobs.”

Policy change can move at a glacial pace—the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) took years to pass, and that only offers a segment of workers twelve weeks of unpaid job-protected leave.  More than twenty years after FMLA’s passage, Henly does see new momentum with regard to work-family policies like paid family leave and sick time. She says that much of the action is happening at the local level, like the recent passage by the Chicago City Council of an earned sick time ordinance, which gives Chicago workers the right to earn up to five days of sick time per year from their employer. “That was really a long time coming,” Henly says, part of what she sees as “a lot of really exciting things happening to try to improve the work schedules of low-income workers.”  For instance, she says, Seattle and San Francisco recently passed scheduling legislation that requires large employers in certain industries to provide greater advance notice of work schedules.

Henly is cautiously optimistic about changes we can expect moving forward. “There aren’t really easy fixes for the front line staff or the organizations that are contracted to do this work,” Henly says, “without additional revenue and a public commitment to help low-income parents and the professionals enlisted to support them.” Her fellowship revealed the complexity of the system. “A policy is not just passing something at the federal or state level--the implementation of it is really critical.” In the meantime, Henly will keep her eye on what she calls the “smaller and incremental changes that won’t revolutionize the system, but at least help it along.”  

For the complete story about Julia Henly’s immersion into the daily operations of the Illinois Action for Children as a William T. Grant Foundation Distinguished Fellow, read more in the SSA Magazine.

— Claire Zulkey