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Mother's hours -- custom-tailoring the workweek

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 1985

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

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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.