Behind the Scenes at a 'Family Friendly' Workplace

By Jane Kiser

This article is from the January/February 1998 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

This article is from the January/February 1998 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 215 cover

Are U.S. businesses becoming "friendlier" to families? For all of the hoopla, you might think "family friendly" work arrangements are widespread. Subsidies for child or elder care, the possibility of taking time off from work to deal with family problems without fearing sanction, working at home... all are reasonable solutions for those who need help balancing the responsibilities of work and family.

But listen to this worker from "Galena Corporation," (not its real name), an HMO and financial services company that employs about 43,000 people, most of whom are women: "We are not encouraged to use the flextime or job share aspects at all. In fact it's discouraged! So it's a wonderful benefit, but we can't use it. The same applies to family leave." And Galena is a "good" company, ranked as one of Working Woman magazine's top 100 companies for working mothers from 1992 to 1995.

People at Galena (which I studied in depth) and other workplaces desperately want work-family benefits. Of the working women surveyed by the AFL-CIO last summer, 70% said being able to take paid leave to care for sick family members was "very important." Sixty percent ranked flexible hours that high, and 56% of those with kids under 12 thought child care benefits were very important. Almost half of the men and women questioned in a 1993 survey said they cared enough about paid leave for care giving that they would trade wages and some of their existing benefits to secure it. More families are facing the time crunch once limited to poor households now that more mothers are working full- instead of part-time. Important family work just can't get done while fulfilling the all-consuming demands of the workplace.

But in most U.S. workplaces, work-family benefits are not even offered—only 9% of full-time employees of state and local governments were offered child care assistance in 1994, and only 8% of those working for medium and large businesses were. These figures were the same as in 1990.

Many companies have dropped flextime from their official roster of benefits—11% of full time employees of medium and large companies had access to flextime in 1989, and only 1% did in 1995, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The only benefits that have become more widespread are reimbursement accounts and family leave. Reimbursement accounts usually cost employers nothing, with employees directing part of their paycheck to these tax-free funds to pay for health care or child and elder care. Family leave is the benefit people can least afford to use, but its more widely available since the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. Now companies with more than 50 employees must offer up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to employees who have just had or adopted a child, or who need to take care of an ill family member or coworker.

But as the Galena worker revealed, benefits may only be available on paper. They may be part of the company's official policy that it can boast about in public, but that doesn't mean all of its employees can use them. Not all employees know about the benefits, some are discouraged from using them, and often supervisors hoard them for their favorite staff.

Galena's work-family policy suffers from all of these limitations, but not surprisingly it is reluctant to reveal any shortcomings in this sensitive arena. Like other companies, it often exaggerates its family friendliness for public relations purposes. But once inside its doors, you discover the complicated way benefits are distributed.

Inside 'Galena'

Galena's family friendly record shows it is a little friendlier to employees with the most money. First off, women are twice more likely to use child care benefits—including on-site child care, discounts at other programs, referrals and reimbursement accounts—than men. But those of higher job grades (those with the most money) are much more likely to use the child care benefits than workers at the lowest level who may need the help the most. Top staff members were almost four times as likely to use one of the benefits than those in the lowest job categories. The reasons are location and cost.

Galena chose to place its four on-site child care centers only in buildings where its corporate staff work. It has chosen not to make them affordable. "I've used the on-site child care center," one employee told me, "and think they are way, way too expensive for the person who earns the average... salary."

"The only discount we receive is at the most expensive day care in town that no one can afford even with the [10%] discount," another staff member said.

Favoritism also reigned in getting employees' children into company day care. "Thanks to Helena, I was put at the top of the waiting list above everyone else!" declared a worker who was happy with the program.

This type of favoritism was the biggest problem I found at Galena, less with child care benefits than with flexible work arrangements. Managers are given total discretion in deciding who can work a compressed work week (same number of hours in fewer days) or enjoy some other flexibility with their hours, share a job with another employee, or work at home. Company guidelines warn supervisors to be sparing when distributing flexible work benefits and leaves so it's no surprise they sometimes reserve them for their favorites. "Business objectives must be met and the needs of other employees must not be compromised," the guidelines say. The result is arbitrariness and discrimination.

Complained one employee, "Work at home and job sharing has been refused at our site despite considerable employee interest. We have had several employees terminate as a result of this situation... Due to the fact that I am a single parent and work full-time as well as attend night school, these programs could benefit me immensely."

Another employee said bluntly, "Our office has not considered compressed work weeks or work at home as an option. Due to long expressway drive to and from work, I believe management should be more open-minded about at least trying these options. Summer hours were also banned this year!! No part-time or job share here."

Huge proportions of Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans reported they didn't even know flexible work arrangements were available. About 43% of the Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans I surveyed said they didn't know about flextime, compressed work weeks or work-at-home options. This is compared to about 20% of whites and blacks who didn't know of these options. All people of color were more likely than whites to have a supervisor turn down their request to use one of these benefits. The least well paid, and those who had not been with the company long, were less likely to benefit from them, as were supervisors who often chose not to use them.

As one supervisor succinctly explained, "I am aware of flex work arrangements. However, I don't feel they are looked upon kindly by management if they are used. I also feel you are viewed as not being career-oriented if you take advantage of these programs." Women supervisors in particular seemed to feel this way.

I'm not sure why, but discrimination seems less a problem in distributing job sharing, part-time hours and family leave than flexible hours like compressed work weeks.

Protecting the discretion of managers so they can offer benefits to whom they please may be one reason the Bureau of Labor Statistics found fewer companies saying that they offer flextime now than in 1989. It may be that companies are not offering flextime officially, but are still offering it unofficially. Other surveys have not found a drop in flextime.

Corporations could be running scared from flextime policies because of lawsuits like the one lodged against Aetna Life and Casualty in 1994. An employee sued Aetna for wrongful dismissal after demanding flextime but not getting it, even though it was supposedly available. This also may explain why so few companies monitor how supervisors distribute these benefits. It's enough for P.R. purposes just to have them on the books, but dangerous for legal purposes to know if people really are getting them.

"Of the... large employers that offer flexible scheduling, like AT&T and Motorola," reports Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal, "nearly all handle employee requests... case by case, with little or no tracking of how and where the practices are used."

Learning the Lessons

Part of the lesson we can learn from Galena or AT&T is that companies should not give individual supervisors total discretion to distribute work-family benefits on a case-by-case basis. More collective decision-making structures, or committees, need to do the deed.

The other lesson is that government and employee oversight is needed to increase the number of "family-friendly" workplaces. In order for flexibility of work hours to become more available, in order for the supply of child care close to work sites to grow, and in order for paid sick leave to be extended to cover the care of sick family members, public policy must intervene in the private sector. The broad support shown for the Family and Medical Leave Act demonstrated that these efforts can win political backing. Where employer policy cannot be mandated, it can be subsidized and regulated. Such subsidies could substantially expand the supply of child care programs near work, for example.

At unionized workplaces, joint labor-management work-family committees need to be set up and given the authority to oversee the administration of company policies to insure broad, consistent and equitable access to all employees. Unions need to respond to their members' concerns (revealed in the AFL-CIO's Working Woman survey) by including work-family policies in their contract demands.

Over the past decade, employers have waged a successful public relations campaign to present themselves as family friendly. But the reality of low wages, cutbacks in health insurance and the threat of being laid off are the very things that make families' lives so stressed. People must work longer hours just to maintain their standard of living. Employers have found that even a handful of relatively inexpensive work-family benefits can play a role in eliciting greater employee participation, loyalty, and job commitment, even from those who don't use them.

By taking the lead in fighting for the work-family benefits that employees care about the most, both in union workplaces and at the level of national public policy, unions—and progressive groups—can legitimately win that loyalty for themselves.

Jane Kiser is an economist with the Center for Popular Economics and a lecturer at Indiana University's Labor Studies division in Gary.

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