Mixing Business with Family ~ ~TC Employers begin to react to needs of working parents and care-givers

November 20, 1991|By Susan Baer

Every morning that she works, Jenny Levendusky packs the stroller, the bottles, the meals, the son, and heads to 10-month-old Nicholas' day care center an hour's commute away.

By 8:25 a.m., having dropped off her son and his belongings at the center, the Gambrills mother waves goodbye and heads to work.

One minute and five floors later, the part-time corporate relations supervisor at Marriott in Bethesda grabs her mail, cranks up her computer, gets a cup of coffee and settles in for another day at the office.

"It's probably the single most reason things are sane in my family right now," Ms. Levendusky says of the 1-year-old child development center on the lower level of headquarters. "I'm very lucky."

A number of Maryland employers -- from the Social Security Administration to AAI Corporation, a defense contractor in Cockeysville -- have established on-site child care centers in the last several years. But while such centers may be the most

visible way in which companies have addressed child care needs, they are only one example of many family-sensitive programs and policies seeping into the working world.

Even as employers debate the merits of the Family and Medical Leave Act, a bill that would require large companies to offer up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year for childbirth, adoption or serious family illness (and is likely to be vetoed by President Bush although it recently passed both houses of Congress), many are finding their own ways to respond to family life.

Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. sponsors seminars on family and parenting issues for employees. At Marriott Corp., 25 percent of the employees work part time. At the Rouse Company, some employees are working four-day weeks.

"It is now mainstream corporate America to acknowledge this issue," says Ellen Galinsky, co-chairman of the Families and Work Institute in New York, which last week published a study of the "family friendliness" of the top Fortune 1,000 corporations.

A decade ago, there was only "miniature curiosity" in such innovations as flexible work hours, compressed work weeks, child care referral services, part-time work with benefits and family leave policies, she says.

These days, the working world is seeing everything from McDonnell Douglas' "homework control center," in which retirees are available to help children of employees with their homework to AT&T's $10 million Family Care Development Fund that sponsors community child and elder care services.

More than anything, the rush of women into the work place has forced companies to deal with the difficult juggling act their employees grapple with today.

About one-half of American workers care for children, elderly parents or other family members, and less than one-third of all employees have a spouse at home full-time, says the National Research Council in Washington.

"We recognize it's no longer Ward and June out there," says Rita Ennis, director of Human Resources at PHH FleetAmerica, a division of PHH Corp. in Hunt Valley, which surveyed its work force two years ago and found flexible hours and sick leave for family members the most desired commodities. Since then, the company has offered flexible work arrangements in some departments.

Carla Barron, a PHH manager, says two-thirds of her staff is on "flex time." "Back when my kids were young, flex time or part-time work would have been helpful," says the single parent of Sean, 7, and Lindsay, 5. "But back then, it was just about unheard of. I've seen a lot of changes over the last couple of years."

Indeed, Tom Urbanski, an operations clerk at BG&E and the first male employee there to receive paternity leave two years ago, says in the past, his colleagues "were made to lie" if they wanted to stay home with a sick child. "I know lots of people who would call in sick because they couldn't afford to lose paid time or vacation time."

Gary Lavan, director of corporate human resources at Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Maryland, says family-sensitive programs -- including day-care referral services, educational programs for expectant mothers and flexible scheduling -- are "absolutely essential" at his company where 80 percent of the employees are female.

Such policies, he says, "are cost effective, fulfill the company's goals of attracting and retaining employees and identify the company as a progressive and desirable place to work."

Debbie Risper, a computer analyst at Blue Cross, for instance, worked for a year at home on a computer and phone line installed by the company, after her daughter, now 2, was born.

But "telecommuting" and other such progressive arrangements are nowhere near the norm. "In this field almost everything is innovative because the mainstream is not doing this," says Janet Singerman, deputy director of the Maryland Committee for Children. The Committee runs a child care resource and referral service to which about 100 businesses throughout the state subscribe.

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