Programs offer good news for women caught in struggle


September 23, 1991|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

Barbara L. Rogers was on maternity leave when her boss called her and asked her to return to work right away.

"I had a fit because my baby was only 2 months old; I planned to be out six months and was nursing on demand," said Rogers, secretary to the director of the U.S. Postal Service in Syracuse, N.Y. "But my boss pointed out I would have no separation anxiety and could nurse whenever I needed to because my son would be only four doors away, down the hall. So I came back."

"Down the hall" is the Little Eagles Child Care Center, the first U.S. on-site child-care center in a postal facility. It was opened in 1988 by the U.S. Postal Service, the American Postal Workers Union and the National Association of Letter Carriers. The center is open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily and has weekend hours to serve all shifts.

Rogers' son now is 3 and still attends Eagles, for which the secretary, who earns $32,000 a year, pays $85 a week. "Eagles is wonderful because it's the difference between my being able to work or not," said Rogers, an Eagles board member. "I can give 150 percent to my job because I know he's doing well -- and he's right here."

Despite that there is bad news for employed women regarding salaries, education, occupational segregation and health benefits, the Eagles center is one of many bits of good news cited in "A More Promising Future: Strategies to Improve the Workplace," by Phyllis Fudell and Jennifer Watson (Wider Opportunities for Women, $17).

"Many people believe things are so bleak for employed women that there's nothing that can be done," said Cynthia Marano, executive director of Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW), a non-profit national women's employment organization based in Washington. "But our book shows that for every problem there are solutions in place -- and the organizations implementing them aren't going broke."

The Syracuse post office is one of three facilities cited in the category of "responding to needs of employees."

The other categories:

* Educating and training the work force: Included in this group is REAL Enterprises in Atlanta, a community-based program to help rural high school and college students in North and South Carolina and Georgia start their own businesses. The acronym stands for Rural Entrepreneurship through Action Learning. "The focus is on women and disadvantaged students," said Marano. "And it works -- students actually research, operate and own viable small businesses."

* Improving access to health insurance and other benefits: Among those cited are Hawaii's state health-care programs. In 1974, the state passed a prepaid health-care law that covers employees who work 20 hours or more. In 1990, a state health insurance program was put in place that covers more than 95 percent of all citizens. A state-funded project also helps small businesses pay their share of premiums. Fifty-five percent of those covered are women. "More than 15.2 million women in the U.S. do not have health insurance, and losing health coverage is a disincentive to leave welfare," said Marano. "What Hawaii has is universal health coverage."

* Changing the structure of work: Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., a $58 million, Waterbury, Vt., ice cream manufacturer, has a work force that is 50 percent female, with many women in non-traditional jobs. "They believe work should be fun, so they've created what they call a 'joy gang' whose job it is to liven up the workplace," reports Marano. "They work to make the plant less stressful by providing back massages, running sports tournaments and giving out tickets to sporting events and free ice cream."

* Creating opportunity and valuing diversity: In 1989, under the leadership of Julia Stasch, executive vice president of Stein & Co., the Chicago real estate developer set up an affirmative action program for the hiring of women and minorities that applies to its private and governmental projects. By 1990, the company had 60 tradeswomen working on the 27-story Ralph Metcalfe Federal Building in Chicago, meeting the 6.9 percent federal goal.

The company recruits and refers tradeswomen to contractors on the job site, gives seminars for contractors, follows up and has on-site support groups for female construction workers.

"Two-thirds of their subcontractors hire women, and the salaries in these fields are more than $10 an hour," Marano said.

Gloria M. Betts, a carpenter apprentice, works for Morse/Diesel International, a subcontractor of Stein that is working on the USG building in Chicago. Betts, who will become a journeywoman in March, checks safety systems throughout the building.

A former clerical worker who earned $4.50 an hour, she now makes $17.32 an hour. "I love my job," said Betts, a graduate of Washburne Trade School's pre-apprenticeship program. "Now I can afford a car and soon a house. I'm more in control of my life. I feel it's basically a steppingstone -- and all because I had that first chance."

& And that's good news.

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