Where's the flex?

More than half of employers report having periodic flexible hours for at least some workers, though less than one-third of full-time employees say they have such freedoms, according to a report from President Barack Obama's economic advisers.

Women comprise nearly half the American workforce, even as other demands on their time have increased, fueling the need for flexibility, according to the report released Wednesday as part of a forum that was opened by first lady Michelle Obama and closed by her husband.

Mrs. Obama recalled her own frustration as she searched with no luck for a baby sitter so she could go on a job interview soon after giving birth to Sasha. She dragged her newborn along – and scored the work.

But many women, she said, aren't that lucky. "Many folks spend a lot of time hoping and praying that everything will work out just perfectly. I remember those days, just the delicate balance of perfection. It's never perfect. Ever."

The president said their high-wire act as working parents with overloaded schedules once took a toll on their marriage. "And we had it relatively easy."

Nearly two-thirds of American families with kids are headed by two working parents or one single parent, according to the report. That's light years from 1968, when 25 percent of children lived in households with two parents working full time.

The shift comes as people are living longer – more than 10 years longer in just one generation, creating the need for care of both children and older relatives. It's care provided mostly by women but also by an increasing number of men. In 2008, about 43.5 million Americans served as unpaid caregivers to a family member over the age of 50.

The availability of flex varies greatly from field to field, with only about one-quarter of full-time workers in manufacturing reporting the opportunity, compared with about 40 percent of workers in financial, professional and business service industries.

And only about 15 percent of all employees report working from home at least once per week.

Employers that have adopted flexible workplace practices cite many economic benefits, including reduced absenteeism and turnover, improvements in attracting and retaining workers and increased productivity, the report said. Surprisingly, small businesses of 50 to 99 workers provide as much or more flex as larger companies with 1,000 or more employees.

But there are costs, including monitoring employees working remotely and meeting short deadlines with teams of part-time help. Nearly one-third of companies cite cost as an obstacle to flex, according to the report.