Corporations inching toward family benefits Companies are very slow to change policies.

Working women

April 29, 1991|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- There's a lot of talk these days about corporations finally realizing that they are going to have to help workers balance the demands of home and work.

Powering the change in attitude are a shrinking labor force, the continuing influx of women into the paid labor market and the competitive challenges of a global marketplace.

There's so much discussion of family benefits that it would be easy to believe that corporate America is rapidly introducing flexible hours, child and elder care, family and medical leave, job-sharing and all the other benefits that make life somewhat easier for employees -- especially women, who have most of the responsibility for the home.

But that's not the way it is. Yet.

"Corporations are making changes, but it's not a revolution, it's an evolution," said Ellen Galinsky, co-president of Families and Work Institute in New York.

One promising trend, she said, is the increase of employers getting involved: 68 percent of the 188 companies responding to a recent Families and Work survey have implemented or plan to implement family benefits.

"Family benefits should be seen as a business strategy, like other human resource issues," Galinsky said. The recession, she said, has not caused firms already involved in family issues to retrench. "But at companies that have done nothing, the recession becomes another reason to justify non-involvement."

The Families and Work Institute, which does research and consulting for business and industry on the changing nature of the labor force, was founded in 1989 with a staff of seven. Another sign of increasing corporate interest is that the institute has grown to a staff of 20.

In Boston, Charles S. Rodgers, principal of Work/Family directions, agrees that "things are changing rather slowly, but the difficulty with generalizing is that some companies are moving quite rapidly, particularly those that are growing and are dependent on women as their labor pool."

Work/Family Directions, started

from their home by his wife, Francene Rodgers, in 1976, today has 125 employees and consults with 70 companies about child-care and elder-care referral services. It is retained nationwide by businesses to give employees information about qualified care-givers in their communities. Employers pay the consulting agency, and employees pay for the care.

"I don't want to be a Pollyanna and say I see vast vistas of progress, because there's a good deal of lip service being paid to making it easier for working parents," said Rodgers. "But the mainstream corporations are sensitized to the problem -- and that's progress."

The underlying switch that has to be made, explained Rodgers, is in "certain basic assumptions of the corporate culture about how people work and how you develop their careers -- and that does not change quickly."

Though the majority of executives now are aware of employees' family needs, "most do not have comprehensive plans but still are at Step 1," said Carol M. Sladek, research consultant and head of a team that studies work and family issues for Hewitt Associates, an international benefits and compensation consulting firm in Lincolnshire, Ill.

In a recent Hewitt study of work and family benefit plans for salaried employees of 837 major U.S. companies, the pattern of "getting ready to get ready" is seen:

* Sixty-four percent reported they offer some kind of child-care assistance to employees. Dependent-care spending accounts and referral services are the most prevalent. Only 9 percent have an employer-sponsored child-care center.

* Elder-care programs are an emerging benefit, but only 32 percent offer them. Of those that do, 88 percent have dependent-care spending accounts. Referrals and counseling are rare.

* Fifty-four percent have flexible scheduling, with flex-time and voluntary part-time work the most common. Job sharing is at 31 percent and working from home is at 15 percent.

* Unpaid parental leave is offered by 44 percent of employers. Only 5 percent have paid leave.

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