Job is less enticing to many balancing it with home life

Leaving the workplace now beats part-timing it

January 02, 2003|By Bonnie Miller Rubin | Bonnie Miller Rubin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As the economy sputters and employers try to do more with less, the much-vaunted "Mommy Track" may be veering off course.

In prosperous times, when the labor pool was smaller, employees seeking work/family balance could easily secure part-time work, job sharing and generous leaves.

Now, job applicants are a dime a dozen and corporate America is asking everyone to work faster, longer, harder.

The result? Parents who have negotiated for fewer hours say they feel under increased pressure to put in more work, causing some to call it quits.

"Maybe it can work when things are booming ... but not now," says Amy Teschner, 41, of Evanston, Ill. After 20 years in marketing, the mother of two resigned from her part-time position in June.

"In good times, you get raises and stock options and you think, `This is not the time to walk away.' But in a downturn, it's a little tougher to convince yourself that the trade-offs are worth it. It's simply easier to leave," Teschner said.

An increasing number of workers seem to share her sentiments. The percentage of households with one stay-at-home parent has increased from 38.9 percent in 1995 to 41.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The change is occurring for a variety of reasons - including layoffs, stagnant wages and the high cost of day care.

But experts say the latest wrinkle is less about money than about disillusionment. Almost 25 years after a voluntary reduction in hours was dubbed the Mommy Track, some are concluding that the lofty goal of balancing work and family is simply not attainable in tougher times.

According to a survey by the New York-based research firm Catalyst, more than half of women who downshifted from full time to part time reported that while their paychecks and benefits shrank, their workloads remained the same. About 10 percent said they increased.

"Instead of part-time employment being the best of both worlds, it may be the worst," says Joanne Brundage, founder of Mothers & More, an international nonprofit organization based in Elmhurst, Ill.

"With fewer people to get the job done, the quality of work/life has to drop dramatically," says George Davis, a senior vice president at Lincoln Financial Group.

Kate Lauderbaugh, a former vice president for Northern Trust Bank, reluctantly concluded that management and motherhood were incompatible. Even with an on-site day-care center and a four-day week, she still worked 10 hours a day, said Lauderbaugh, who once supervised 65 people and now is home with two young children.

"It's been really good for my kids, but I'm not sure it's been great for me," she says.

Meanwhile, the cost of day care keeps climbing while wages have stalled - even more so for women with children.

And now that computers, e-mail, cell phones and pagers have created a porous wall between home and office, everyone is on call all the time - except that those with customized work hours are doing it for less.

"If you're not getting high-visibility assignments, not getting raises and have no role models, then it's a job - not a career," says Sonia Ossorio, a spokeswoman for Catalyst.

"And that makes the decision to go home much easier."

Bonnie Miller Rubin is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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