Mother's hours -- custom-tailoring the workweek

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The hand-lettered sign in the window of a suburban fabric store spells out an unusual offer: STARTING IN SEPTEMBER

HELP WANTED

MOTHER'S HOURS

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Inside, the manager explains the work schedule: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday, with summers off.

Six blocks away, similar flexibility is available during the school year at McDonald's, where employees can choose one of two daytime shifts: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., or 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

For working mothers willing to settle for routine work and modest wages, jobs like these can provide needed flexibility. But for those who want to go beyond measuring fabric or selling Big Macs, part-time employment that coincides with school hours often remains an elusive goal. Although day care and ``latchkey'' arrangements pose twin problems for millions of families, many corporate employers are just beginning to address the need for more flexible work schedules.

``There is still resistance,'' says Diane Rothberg, president of the Association of Part-Time Professionals, in Alexandria, Va. ``It's not so much opposition, it's just `I've never considered it.' Yet whenever surveys have been taken of supervisors who have employed part-timers at more professional levels, they have been very satisfied. It's the supervisors who have never considered it or haven't had experience with it who are more wary.''

Alternative work schedules can take many forms, including ``mother's hours'' or other flexible arrangements, permanent part-time positions, and job sharing. Most specialists in the field define part-time as less than 32 hours a week. A large number of part-time professionals work four days a week, Ms. Rothberg notes, with a smaller percentage working three days. For maximum efficiency and continuity, most prefer to work full days rather than half days, she finds.

One of the most creative approaches comes from California. Known as V-time -- shorthand for voluntary reduced work time -- the program allows employees to reduce their work time anywhere from 2 percent to 20 percent. Workers receive a comparable reduction in pay while retaining their benefits and their status as full-time permanent employees.

``The employee signs an agreement with the employer to reduce working hours for a certain period, usually six months or a year,'' explains Barbara Moorman, program manager for New Ways to Work, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco. ``At the end of that time the employee can return to a full-time position or renegotiate continued participation in the V-time program.''

Originally developed for county workers in Santa Clara County, the program has served as a model for plans now used by the City of San Jose and by San Mateo County in California. The state's Reduced Work Time Act also enables state agencies to replicate the Santa Clara program. New York State offers a similar program to its professional and managerial employees, allowing them to reduce their schedules by 5 to 30 percent.

For some companies in the private sector, part-time schedules become a follow-up to maternity leaves.

``It is in the corporation's best interest to accommodate a woman we have spent a lot of money training at a time in her life when she needs flexibility,'' says Nancy Whitney, a vice-president of Shawmut Bank in Boston. ``When you have spent X thousand dollars training someone and they want to work four days, you're cutting off your nose to spite your face if you say they have to work five days.''

Ms. Moorman concurs. ``We're trying to let employers know that when they look at their parental leave policies, they also need to look at what happens to the worker when she comes back to work,'' she says. ``The leave was very helpful, but in combination with the leave, employees need to reduce their work schedules for a time when their children are still very young.''

In addition to helping companies retain current employees, part-time arrangements also provide a source of future full-time employees.

Arlene Saretsky, a secretary-receptionist at Scott, Foresman & Co. in Glenview, Ill., began working for the textbook publisher on a part-time basis in 1979, when her son was in fourth grade.

``I dropped off my son at school, worked from 9 to 3, then picked him up,'' she recalls. ``He hardly knew I worked.''

Two years ago, after four years on ``mother's hours,'' Mrs. Saretsky switched to a full-time job -- a typical pattern among part-timers. She now oversees employees in the personnel pool where she began.

Part-time arrangements are not without trade-offs, of course. The main objection for many workers is the lack of health insurance, vacation, and pensions, which are often available only to full-time employees. At Scott, Foresman, where part-time workers receive profit sharing and bonus time after 1,000 hours a year, Mrs. Saretsky says, ``Their main concern is no benefits. Otherwise they're happy and content with what they're doing.''

The big drawback for professionals, Ms. Rothberg finds, is getting derailed from the ``fast track.'' But on the other hand, she counters, ``when you work part-time you are keeping your hand in.''

She divides potential part-timers into two groups. ``Insiders'' are full-time employees who want to continue in their present position by converting to part-time status. ``Outsiders'' are those seeking to join a firm on a part-time basis.

Ms. Rothberg advises insiders to analyze their jobs, breaking them down into components to see what portion they want to keep. Next, develop a concrete proposal showing how the job could be accomplished on a reduced schedule. Finally, she says, pick the right time and place to talk to a supervisor about conversion.

For outsiders seeking part-time work, she suggests networking and checking job opportunities in their fields. ``If there is a full-time position open, we suggest people apply for it,'' she says. ``See whether it's what you want and what the company wants. When negotiations open up -- hours, salary -- then broach the idea of working part-time.''

``There's more out there than one thinks,'' she adds. ``The more you get out and talk to people, the more they will remember you, even though you think you have not made a dent and they say `Never.' Well, `never' might end three weeks down the road when they have a crunch.''

Although the impetus for part-time work has come from women because of family responsibilities, Ms. Rothberg says, ``We don't see part-time as a woman's issue. That's very important. We see it as a people issue. If there were more good part-time jobs, you would see many more men in the market for them.''

For the future, both Ms. Rothberg and Ms. Moorman remain optimistic.

``Every day resistance is being worn down somewhat by employees in various companies asking for alternative kinds of schedules, and needing them,'' says Ms. Moorman. ``The examples of enlightened employers who have implemented alternative schedules also help. Facts show that these different schedules help productivity, improve worker morale, and decrease absenteeism. Those things combining are causing a lot more employers to look at this.''

At the same time, more companies are taking the initiative by placing newspaper ads for part-time professionals, Ms. Rothberg finds. ``It isn't just the day-care issue that employers will have to confront,'' she says. ``They are going to have to assess the need of the changing work force and the needs of their business, and they're going to have to mesh.''

``One employer put this very nicely,'' she recalls. ``He said, `Don't call this an accommodation. Call it a good business practice.' '' A glossary of terms for flexible work options

Mother's hours. Work schedules that allow women to be home with children after school and during the summer. Hours might run from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., depending on an employer's needs or local school schedules.

V-time. Short for voluntary reduced work time. Program allows employees to reduce work time anywhere from 2 percent to 20 percent (occasionally up to 50 percent), with comparable reductions in wages. Workers sign an agreement to reduce their work time for a certain period, usually six months or a year. At the end of that time they return to full-time work or renegotiate V-time. Workers on V-time retain their benefits and their status as full-time permanent employees.

Part time. Usually defined as less than 32 hours a week. Positions can be permanent or temporary. Some employers prorate at least some benefits. Others offer none to part-time employees.

Flexible time. Full-time workweeks that can be adjusted to suit a worker's need. Instead of a regular 9 to 5 schedule, one employee might work from 7 to 3, another from 10 to 6. Many employers allowing flexible time require all employees to be present during certain ``core'' hours -- 10 to 2, for example.

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