Do employees with children get better benefits?
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Employees with children under 18 comprise less than 40 percent of the American workforce, yet they get the lion's share of employee benefits. That's the assertion of a vocal minority of unmarried and childless workers who would do away with child care and extended leave for new parents. Benefits should be meted out equally, they insist, ideally in a cafeteria plan that gives every employee the same amount of money and array of options.
Benefits managers and consultants agree that a comprehensive package addresses the needs of all employees, but few see a needor a demandfor absolute parity. Indeed, Skip Schlenk, AT&T's work/life director, considers the fairness-for-singles question "a nonissue." During her nine years at AT&T, Schlenk has led countless focus groups, but "I've never heard anyone mention it."
Nonetheless, the hue and cry of aggrieved childless workers has garnered its fair share of publicity. A recent New York Times Magazine article highlighted claims of disparity. Last fall's Work/Family Congress 2000 featured Elinor Burkett as a speaker. She's the author of The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless. Lisa Berenson, editor in chief of Working Woman, offered a rebuttal in an editorial titled "Who's Cheating Whom?"
In reality, Berenson asserted, family-friendly benefits are few and far between. (See the table below.) She agreed with the critics on one point: "Benefits aren't equal." Examples include the advanced training a company gives only to workers who qualify, time off for employees suffering from mental illness and disease management programs targeting those with common chronic conditions. But, Berenson asked, "Do we really want to start denying perks to others simply because we don't happen to be using them ourselves?"
|Benefit||% of major firms offering|
|Elder care resources and referrals||40|
|Sick/emergency child care||13|
|Child care on or near site||10|
Benefits managers at firms that have been ranked among the nation's best places to work say No.
The SAS Institute was a family-friendly pioneer, according to spokesman John Dornan: Twenty years ago, the software maker became one of the first employers in the country to introduce on-site child care. At the time, SAS was five years old and had just 60 employees. Today, the company employs 7,500 people, nearly half of them at its Cary, N.C., headquarters.
"Like all our benefits and amenities," Dornan says, "this one evolved from employee need. A senior manager was having a baby and trying to decide whether to return to work. The company knew this would relieve much of the pressure."
In recent years, work/family programs have become more common, says Jon Van Cleve, a work/life consultant at Hewitt Associates. "As more and more women began returning to the workforce after childbirth, employers began asking, 'What can we do to help them find affordable, convenient child care?'" The next phase brought men into the picture, "but still with a distinct focus on helping parents." In the last couple of years, says Van Cleve, "work/family has evolved into a true work/ life platform with the emphasis on benefits and support for every employee."
And for most workers these days, he and others agree, the hottest commodity is time.
"Whether you're 22 or 65, you're likely to be facing a time crunch," Van Cleve asserts, and many employers have responded with telecommuting, flextime and compressed workweeks. According to Hewitt Associates' latest work/life report, 57 percent of the more than 1,000 major companies surveyed offer flextimegenerally defined as staggered start and stop times within the context of an eight-hour day. When flexible scheduling was new, he recalls, it was common for employers to ask workers to explain why they wanted to adjust their hours. Now, he says, "they don't care what your reason is as long as the work gets done and their business needs are met."
General Mills, headquartered in a suburb of Minneapolis, has already moved into the next generation of time-friendly benefits. The 3,500 employees at the GM campus can get their cars washed, repaired and refueled while they work. Haircuts, gift shopping, shoe repair, dry cleaning and prescription drug refills are all available on-site. There's even someone who'll make that annual trip to the department of motor vehicles to get the replacement tag Minnesota requires.
Dentists, primary care doctors, and specialists in dermatology, vision care and more are all availableat no charge. All save employees' time and help keep workers on the job. Tom Forsythe, director of corporate communications, offers an example: "My personal dentist is downtown. Driving there, parking, getting the dental work done and driving back would probably be a two-hour affair." Seeing the on-site dentist takes about a quarter of that time.
An employee survey prompted General Mills to set up fitness and infant care centers. The list goes on with domestic partner benefits for gay employees, summer hours and an array of social activities. So a job change could mean finding a new child care provider, new doctors, time to run errands and workout and possibly a new social group as well. "Fundamentally, GM wants to be an employer of choice," Forsythe emphasizes. In a very tight labor market, "Our benefits package is a very effective retention tooland a good investment."
At AT&T, all employees can take up to three personal days in as little as two-hour increments, Schlenk reports. Parents use the time for parent-teacher conferences and other children's activities, as expected. "But we're hearing, too, what a great program it is for those caring for elder relatives," she says. "This is a benefit that has appeal across the whole employee spectrum."
AT&T also allows workers to take a family care leave for up to 12 months over a 24-month period and still keep their benefits and their jobs. (The FMLA standard is 12 weeks a year.) Some companies offer extended leave for other reasons, often in keeping with the corporate culture. At Patagonia, an outdoor apparel company based in Ventura, Calif., for instance, the emphasis is on the environment.
"We're trying to get people to understand that you can make a quality product and do the right thing and still be profitable," says Lu Setnicka, director of public affairs. Patagonia donates a portion of its earnings to environmental causes and urges its employees to get involved as well.
That translates into an internship program in which "qualified employees can take up to two months offwith payto work for an environmental nonprofit group anywhere in the world." Last year's interns worked at the Center for Environmental Law and Policy in Washington state, assisted ecosystem preservation at the Oregon Natural Desert Association and helped survey the effects of pest control agents on a forest in New Zealand.
Establishing yourself as a company committed to environmental causes, Setnicka observes, "helps you create highly motivated employees and very loyal customers." As an added payback, Patagonia uses the openings left by the interns to cross-train other employees, providing backup workers and giving the trainees a competitive edge when jobs open up.
The company also offers two months paid child care leave to new moms and dads and flexible arrangements when they returnwith no apologies. After all, notes Setnicka, Patagonia will also hold the job of an employee with "a need to spend time in the woods or take off and go paddling in Baja California" for up to four months.
While some companies offer legal services, transportation or parking vouchers and financial planning and other benefits that appeal to workers whether or not they have children, Patagonia takes the prize for the most unusual perk: Time off when the surf's up.
Helen Lippman. Do single workers get their fair share?. Business and Health 2001;1:49.