Employee benefits for adoption, long overlooked, are increasing

April 17, 1995|By Andrea Adelson | Andrea Adelson,New York Times News Service

Anticipating the birth of a child involves plenty of strain, both mental and physical. But don't tell adoptive parents their emotional strain doesn't rank a close second. "I had to face the same fears," said Dianne R. Wentworth, a project manager for Pacific Bell in San Ramon, Calif., who adopted a toddler in November. "I understand there's disability in birth, but there's just as much adjustment time in adoption."

When it comes to financial strain, though, adoptive parents clearly get the worst of it. Most prospective parents give little thought to that big hospital bill, as nearly all employers offer maternity benefits.

But adoptive parents typically get little help, scrambling to pay -- out of their own pockets -- costs that average $9,000. For a foreign-born child, that can soar to $30,000.

Ms. Wentworth, who adopted 4-year-old Tanya from a Russian orphanage, had to refinance her home to pay the $17,000 tab, which included $2,200 toward the initial agency, $11,000 for the liaison agency and $3,000 for air fare. Only $2,000 of that was picked up by her employer, and even that sum was more exception than rule.

Fewer than 25 percent of 1,035 top American companies provided any adoption benefits in 1994, and nearly half of those added such benefits only in the past four years, according to a survey by Hewitt Associates, benefits consultants. By contrast, nearly 90 percent of large employers had maternity benefits, according to government figures.

Relief may be coming. Included in the tax-reform bill just passed by the House of Representatives was a $5,000 tax credit for adoptive parents. The bill has yet to be acted on by the Senate.

Ms. Wentworth says a credit could make a big difference. "A lot of people stop because they think it costs a lot," she said.

Interestingly, though, the provision has been credited to the initiative of anti-abortion forces, and that may hurt its chances.

The most common adoption benefit is a $2,000 taxable reimbursement, which may be earmarked for things like legal or agency fees, the birth mother's medical bills or air fare to pick up a child. The most generous companies, including Colgate Palmolive, Syntex, Hallmark Cards and Hewitt, reimburse up to $5,000.

A prominent spokesman

One prominent champion of adoption is David Thomas, well known as the television spokesman for Wendy's International Inc., the fast-food chain he founded. Since 1989, he has used his celebrity to transform Wendy's into something of a bully pulpit.

Mr. Thomas, 63 and adopted, is a latecomer to this cause, owing his conversion to former President George Bush, who asked him to head a White House initiative called "Adoption Works . . . for Everyone."

To his chagrin, he discovered that Wendy's, like most businesses, had overlooked a glaring disparity in its corporate benefit program that hurt adoptive parents.

Mr. Thomas now spends much of his time arguing his point to chief executives. As a lobbyist, he urged two dozen members of Congress to pass the adoption credit last month.

Mr. Thomas believes a financial inducement, either from public or private sources, can increase the rate of adoption.

His goal is ambitious. By 2000, his mission is to increase to 60 percent the number of large companies with adoption benefits.

Pacific Bell began offering employees a $2,000 adoption allowance in 1989. "In our culture, it's understanding employees' needs and wants," said Robin Macgillivray, its human resources director.

To be sure, few employers grant formal paid leaves for adoptive parents, benefit consultants say, just as few employers extend paid maternity leaves beyond the six to eight weeks doctors typically say a new mother is disabled.

Under the family-leave bill passed in 1993, employers with more than 50 workers are required to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family and medical emergencies.

Business has a well-established tradition of responsibility for its employees' health, said Robin Hardner, a spokeswoman for the Families and Work Institute. "The whole concept of corporations having other responsibilities to family life is a newer concept."

Yet prospects of benefit parity for adoptive parents are improving. Since 1990, the number of major employers offering adoption benefits has risen to 21 percent from 12 percent, Hewitt surveys show.

Its value is generally pegged to the cost of an easy pregnancy, which averages $5,000. More often exempt from reimbursement are travel expenses, immigration fees and the child's medical expenses.

Corporate image

Some employers, like Johnson & Johnson and IBM, help employees who adopt partly to enhance their reputation as progressive companies, Ms. Hardner said. But many companies, she said, "still don't see a connection between supporting people's personal lives and productivity."

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