Good News for Parents in the Workplace

Richard Louv
November 29, 1999

1999 Was a Very Good Year

The Millennium is just around the corner, and at least in one arena, the New Year bodes well for working families, if 1999 is any indication. This has been a good year for family-friendly workplace policies.

Sue Shellenbarger, the longtime workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal, credits a new mood to a new breed of CEOs. "A new generation of younger leaders is taking the helm of upstart and fast-growing companies," she reports. "These Baby Boom CEOs have suffered work-family conflict, talk openly about it and often integrate job and family in a visible way."

A handful of executives, however, do not a revolution make.

Two additional developments are transforming employer attitudes. One is the growing realization that "being a parent actually increases your energy at work," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the nonprofit Families and Work Institute.

The second change is the economy itself; as the nation's memory of the recession of the early 1990s fades, many employers, particularly in high tech companies, are struggling to find enough skilled workers.

Certainly, companies are becoming more creative in defining family-friendly policies.

New ways to help families
Many corporations now offer a wide array of family-friendly policies—including wealth-building stock options, full family health coverage, life insurance, tuition reimbursement, flex-time, telecommuting, disability insurance, 401K plans as well as maternity and paternity leave (although paid leave is exceedingly rare among private companies, according to the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Still, the definition of what constitutes a family-friendly workplace is widening.

"Twenty-four hour child care is the hot new thing," says Erin Brownsfield of the Families and Work Institute. "We're seeing all kinds of companies, but especially factories and hospitals, sponsoring child-care centers that stay open around the clock for the children of night-shift workers and students taking night classes."

Increasingly, family-friendly policies are melded into wider employee-friendly approaches—with good reason; not all of us are parents, but all of us have some kind of family pressures.

Hungry to compete for suddenly scarce high-tech workers, CDW, a $2.1 billion software company that began as a home-based business 15 years ago, opened a 33,000-square-foot child care and fitness center, dubbed CDW@Play, at its Vernon Hills, Illinois, headquarters. The company even hands out free bagels, sweet rolls and fruit twice a week, and special "dinners to go" to parents and other employees who work late.

Another creative company, Vastera, goes beyond the more traditional family-friendly benefits. The software maker offers a game room, on-site flower and dry cleaning services, a fitness center and even free Frappuccinos. This year, the Northern Virginia Family Service organization gave Vastera its 1999 Mid-Size Company CARE Award.

Nearly 90 percent of companies allow workers to take time off to attend school events, and half of the nation's firms let workers stay home with mildly ill children without using vacation or sick days, according to a 1998 study by the Families and Work Institute. But only 9 percent of companies offer child care at or near the workplace, 23 percent offer elder care resource and referral services and 33 percent offer maternity leaves more than 13 weeks long.

One of the biggest challenges of the 21st century will be to extend family-friendly policies to an increasingly culturally diverse workforce. Each year, Working Mother magazine recognizes companies that are exceptionally family-friendly. In September, the magazine announced 1999's top 100, including, for the ninth year, Marriott International. Among the first large corporations to take the work-family conflict seriously, Marriott's employees, many of them lower-income, represent 20 distinctive cultures. So, in addition to the more expected family-friendly benefits, Marriott sponsors a nationwide toll-free family- and employee-assistance hot line staffed by social workers who speak more than 150 languages.

An improved political climate
Less than a decade ago, how companies treated parents was not much of a political issue. Times have changed.

After years of political struggle, in 1993 Congress approved the Family and Medical Leave Act, guaranteeing that people who work for companies with more than 50 employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year to care for a newborn or newly adopted child or for certain seriously ill family members, or to recover from their own serious health conditions.

Since then, the Clinton Administration has pursued other family initiatives, and this year moved to encourage an array of interesting family-friendly policies for government workers. The goal: test the policies first among government agencies, and then—by example or fiat— extend them to the private sector.

For example, the Interior Department now provides "family support rooms" for parents who must bring their children to work in emergency situations. Another Administration proposal would extend long-term care insurance to the families of federal employees and members of the military. Today, only 6 million Americans, in our rapidly aging country, are covered by such insurance.

Liberals aren't the only pro-family activists. Conservative Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) is pushing a proposal known as the Family Friendly Workplace Act. Ashcroft wants to change the 40-hour workweek to an 80-hour two-week period, so employees could schedule 50 hours on the job for one week and a 30-hour week the next.

Such flexible scheduling would, theoretically, allow parents and other employees a solid chunk of time to attend to family matters. Some Democrats oppose the proposal; they say it would allow employers to avoid paying overtime in a given week. But Ashcroft counters that parents want that kind of flexibility—even if labor unions don't.

The Clinton Administration also supports legislation that would ban workplace discrimination against parents. The bill would establish parents as a protected class with the same kinds of civil rights protections granted to minorities, women and the disabled.

Until a few years ago, no legal framework existed for parents to be considered a group deserving of any kind of special workplace protection. Then came state and federal family leave laws, which for the first time established that parents have definable rights as employees. Federal anti-discrimination legislation for parents is unlikely to pass anytime soon, but even the discussion of such a law suggests how far we've come in a relatively short period of time.

A recognition of self-interest
Another element in the change is a growing recognition among employers that parenting isn't necessarily a drain on employees.

Ellen Galinksy, in her new book, Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents (Morrow), offers this evidence. In the 1998 Families and Work survey, 59 percent of employed parents said that their children gave them more energy for work. Seventy-one percent said that they're often in a good mood at work because of their children, compared to only 7 percent of parents who say being a parent destroys their work mood.

True, some parenting does hinder some employees. Galinksy found that these are the ones who place a higher priority on work than on family life; experience more stresses on the job; have little parenting support from their families and friends; feel their work lacks meaning; and have less workplace support.

But, Galinsky reports, "employees who have good work situations—and who work in companies with family-friendly policies—are more likely to come home with more energy to spend on their kids, and the happiness that brings for parents and kids spills back into work."

For these employees, being a parent appears to enhance "workplace competencies," including subtle management skills, Galinsky says. "When you're trying to get your 3-year-old into the bathtub, you're learning how to be an authority—a patient authority—because that 3-year-old doesn't necessarily do what you want." An earlier Families and Work Institute study, conducted in 1992, found that supervisors who have child care responsibilities and/or working spouses are viewed by the people they supervise as better bosses than other supervisors. The workers most likely to experience the positive spillover from parenting to work are fathers and those who place a higher priority on family than on work, according to the '98 survey.

"Last year, we conducted a global work/life forum with representatives from 22 countries," Galinsky said. "We found that in other parts of the world, businesses are beginning to consider the competencies that being a parent bring. As a society, we've tended to focus on the conflict between work and family, to view that relationship as a problem. We've ignored the fact that children can be an asset to a working parent—and therefore to a company."

What about antagonism from non-parents toward parents?

Another Families and Work survey that found that employees without children and those with kids were equally willing to pitch in and help someone with a work-life problem. She explains: "With the exception of a small number of resentful employees, there isn't this anti-parent thing going on in the workplace."

The main reason: we're all members of some kind of family. Eighty-five percent of all employees live with family members of one sort or another—grandchildren, adopted and foster children, parents, unmarried partners and other relatives. And even those who don't live with a relative often have family responsibilities. Consequently, family-friendly work policies can help almost every employee—if the policies are fairly written and administered.

Who feels left out?
Pro-family policies will likely continue as long as the economy remains strong and workers are in demand. But the family-friendly workplace movement could reverse in a stagnant economy, and despite the current boom, some parents already feel left behind.

The unemployment rate may be the lowest it has been in nearly three decades, but many young workers feel their jobs fall short in pay, benefits and chances for advancement, according to a poll released in September 1999 by the labor union AFL-CIO.

"They see today's jobs as failing to meet the most basic needs: health care, retirement security and time to spend with family," according to AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney. Among workers ages 18 to 34—those most likely to have young children—fewer than half rated the economy as excellent or good, compared with 58 percent of those over age 35.

One reason is the increase in temporary jobs, especially among young workers. The 2030 Center, a Washington-based public policy group, reports that one in six young adults will hold a temp job before turning 35, earning an average of 16.5 percent less their older, fully employed counterparts. Another reason is the type of available jobs. The fastest-growing occupation in future years? Retail cashiers, according to the Department of Labor.

This suggests a note of caution. Good news about a growing economy and increasing availability of family-friendly workplace policies must be viewed in the context of lower-paying service sector and temporary jobs, and the probability that the overall economic boom will eventually fade.


Richard Louv is senior editor of Connect for Kids and a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, the author of several books about children and community, including "The Web of Life: Weaving the Values that Sustain Us" (Conari Press).