Working Parents and The Work Place

David Blankenhorn, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 8/29/1986

The trends are clear. Support for the pro-family work place will continue to grow as a growing proportion of the work force consists of parents who require new flexibility in balancing the demands of working and parenting... Those employers who have introduced pro-family reforms have done so not despite their concern for the bottom line but because of it. They have found, not surprisingly, that flexible work-place policies result in less absenteeism, lower employee turnover, better recruitment capacity and higher employee morale. They recognize, moreover, that these investments in people – what economists call the human capital approach – are precisely the right strategy for improving American competitiveness in today's global economy.

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Subjects: Family, Family law , Family policy

More by: David Blankenhorn

How much longer will corporate leaders ignore the new realities of the American work force and the American family? In particular, how much longer will they undermine their own productivity by expecting today's workers to fit yesterday's personnel policies?

Surely corporate leaders see the trends that have transformed the labor force and restructured the family. Thirty years ago, men comprised 70 percent of the work force. Two out of three American families consisted of a breadwinner father and a mother who raised the children.

Today men are only 56 percent of the work force. Fewer than one in five families consist of two parents and children supported by a single income. Nearly 70 percent of mothers with school-age children now work outside the home as well as in it, as do more than half of all mothers with preschool children. By the turn of the century, demographers predict, the percentage of women in the labor force will roughly equal that of men.

But today's corporate personnel policies remain stuck in a 1950s time warp, rooted in the quaint assumption that employees have someone at home to attend to family matters.

They don't. Above all, today's workers need flexible policies that help them bridge the gap between work and family – policies that permit working parents to be better parents. Yet today about 60 percent of working mothers are still not entitled to maternity leaves – even unpaid ones – when they have children.

Parental leaves for new fathers are even rarer: Fewer than one in three major companies offer them. Child care also remains a low priority. Only about 2,500 of the nation's 44,000 largest employers offer any assistance – financial, on-site centers or information and referral – to employees with young, children.

Among these larger firms, fewer than one in three allow flexible working hours. About one in five offer flexible benefit plans, in which employees can purchase benefits, such as child-care assistance, that suit their individual and family circumstances. Fewer than one in five permit job sharing.

Meanwhile, public demand for what might be termed the pro-family work place is clearly growing. Over the past several years, the Roper Organization has polled Americans to determine which benefits they expect or desire from employers and which they do not. Their key finding in 1986: the rising demand for family-support benefits for working parents.

For example, the public's desire for company-supported child care has grown 9 percent in five years: 33 percent of all adults now consider it either an employer's "definite responsibility" or a "highly desirable" employee benefit. Similarly, 32 percent strongly endorse job-sharing, up 6 percent in five years. Flexible working hours are now supported by 55 percent of the public. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 52 percent of Americans agreed (37 percent disagreed) that "companies should be required by law to let men and women take up to 18 weeks of unpaid leave from their work after the birth or adoption of their child." In the case of seriously ill children, 72 percent felt that parental leaves should be available.

The trends are clear. Support for the pro-family work place will continue to grow as a growing proportion of the work force consists of parents who require new flexibility in balancing the demands of working and parenting.

Fortunately, a small but growing number of corporations and trade unions are setting examples for others to follow. Merck & Co., a major pharmaceutical firm, offers job-protected parental leaves, for fathers as well as mothers, for up to 18 months. Merck also allows flexible working hours and offers several on-site or nearby childcare centers.

American Can Co. has established a flexible benefits program that is both cost-effective and popular among employees. American Telephone and Telegraph, Corning Glass Works, Levi Strauss and Co. and Steelcase Inc. have demonstrated similar leadership and creativity. Among trade unions, the Service Employees International Union and the Communications Workers of America have insisted on the importance of family-support benefits in contract negotiations.

Those employers who have introduced pro-family reforms have done so not despite their concern for the bottom line but because of it. They have found, not surprisingly, that flexible work-place policies result in less absenteeism, lower employee turnover, better recruitment capacity and higher employee morale. They recognize, moreover, that these investments in people – what economists call the human capital approach – are precisely the right strategy for improving American competitiveness in today's global economy.

We should follow these leaders. We cannot afford to ignore today's demographic and economic realities – to do so would be a double tragedy, undermining both our work places and our families. By now the basic features of the pro-family work place are clear. So are its benefits to both employer and employee. It remains only to be recognized as an idea whose time is already overdue.

This article originally appeared here.

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