BOSTON — At Fel-Pro Inc. in Skokie, Ill., a worker who wants a tutor for her child can get the auto-parts manufacturer to foot the bill. ConAgra Inc. in Omaha, Neb., will send a nurse to an employee's home for up to 12 hours to care for an unwell child or parent. Patagonia Inc. in Ventura, Calif., gives new fathers up to eight weeks paid paternity leave.
These companies represent a growing shift in corporate America toward family friendliness.
It's an issue businesses have been grappling with since the early 1980s - how to help employees better balance work and family responsibilities. Back then, executives viewed it strictly as a "women's issue," and the extent of a company's family-friendly benefits was usually to set up an on-site day-care facility.
Today, however, two-career families are the norm, and corporate downsizing has lessened job security while increasing demands on remaining employees.
According to Harvard University economist Juliet Schor, Americans spend about a month more at work each year than they did 20 years ago. In addition, executives - many of whom are immune to the impacts - are starting to hear about workplace trials as their own children enter the work force.
As a result, the work-family connection has emerged as one of the biggest issues facing corporate America. This year, for the first time, Business Week published a rating of family-friendly companies.
Today, more corporations are expanding their universe of programs to include child-care and elder-care referral services, flexible work arrangements, and adoption benefits. Some businesses have even designated posts such as work-family manager and work-life coordinator.
For many firms, this approach is nothing less than a competitive advantage. "In the final analysis, it is the area where companies are going to compete," says Bradley Googins of the Center on Work & Family at Boston University, which co-authored the Business Week survey.
Still, work and family researchers are quick to point out that while companies have made great strides in identifying workers' needs and offering benefits, such programs don't do any good if employees feel they can't use them without being penalized.
"Research shows that the most important aspect of helping workers balance work and family is not the programs but the [work] culture," says Arlene Johnson, vice president of the Families & Work Institute in New York. "Yet companies still struggle with the perception that these benefits are accommodations or favors."
For Ellen Kullman, the family-support programs at DuPont Company in Wilmington, Del., have made it possible for her to balance both.
Vice president of white pigments and mineral products and the mother of three young children, Ms. Kullman finds that her schedule is packed. She often works 12-hour days and travels about 40 percent of the time. The company's emergency child-care and referral services have helped her. "When my child was in day care, and she would get sick, my husband and I would have to figure out how to cover that," she says. Now, DuPont's service helps her find alternative arrangements.
Kullman also works from home several days a week to be with her children. "All of it has made my life and my job enormously easier."
Companies with the best work-family practices tend to be in industries that face fierce competition for workers, consultants say, including banking, insurance, and pharmaceuticals. BankBoston created a work-force effectiveness department two years ago, and offers employees flexible work schedules and child-care and elder-care referral services. Recently, the bank changed its 10-day sick-leave policy to include caring for relatives or friends.
One gauge of how far companies have come is Working Mother magazine's survey ranking the top 100 family-friendly firms. When the list debuted 11 years ago, only 30 companies were worthy of recognition. Today, "there is a frenzy to get on it," says Milt Moskowitz, a workplace expert who compiles the survey.
Of firms on this year's list, 75 percent offer child care on-site or at a nearby center. Two-thirds reimburse part of the cost of adoption. Eli Lilly & Co., a pharmaceutical manufacturer based in Indianapolis, pays as much as $10,000 for adoption costs. A growing number offer flexible work schedules, such as telecommuting and job sharing. And for the first time, a member of academia (Stanford University) and two Wall Street firms (Merrill Lynch & Co. and Bankers Trust New York Corp.) made the top 100.
For more businesses, the reason for rolling out such programs is clear: the bottom line. Many cite higher productivity, lower turnover and absenteeism, and improved worker loyalty.
First Tennessee National Corp., for example, reported a 30 percent drop in turnover costs since the company started treating family issues seriously three years ago. DuPont, which has been through several downsizings, found in a recent study that workers who use its family-support programs "are the most committed employees in the company" and are far more likely to "go the extra mile" than others.
Another example is Fel-Pro, which employs 2,500 people to make gaskets for the automotive industry. The manufacturer has made the Working Mother list all 11 years because of its generous benefits. Among them are on-site day-care and fitness centers and an eight-week summer camp for workers' children. Each year, Fel-Pro spends about $1,200 per employee for its nonmedical family-support programs, estimates Scott Mies, director of work-life benefits. But the return on that investment, he says, comes back in "in spades."
A study of 800 workers at Fel-Pro by the University of Chicago found that frequent users of the benefits "have the highest performance evaluations and the lowest intentions of leaving." Indeed, the average turnover for a manufacturing job elsewhere is one to two years while at Fel-Pro it's 10 years, Mr. Mies says. The fact that Fel-Pro is a privately held, family-run operation that doesn't have to report to shareholders makes a difference, he adds.
But even corporations hailed as doing the best still have much to do to change the corporate climate. "While we've reached a state of political correctness," Mr. Googins says, "a fair amount of [work-family issues] are definitely undiscussable."
Part of that, researchers say, stems from downsizing. "One of the negative results of downsizing is a real feeling that if employees aren't busy all the time [if they have time to go to their child's soccer game] then they must not be essential," says Mary Kay Leonard, vice president of Boston-based Work/Family Directions, the field's biggest consultancy.
A recent study at DuPont, for example, found that while employees highly value opportunities for flexibility, they perceive there's a cost for actually using them. The study reported that some of DuPont's professional women were reluctant to raise issues of children and family for fear managers would assume they could no longer pursue their careers seriously and would pass them over for promotions.
DuPont's Kullman says this is changing, particularly as more fathers ask for flexibility. But researchers note that a majority of workers using these programs at most firms are women.
"The companies that are truly at the cutting edge of the movement look at how employees are being rewarded," says Ida Castro, director-designate of the Women's Bureau of the US Department of Labor. "It doesn't work when a company says, 'Yes, we value family, but we promote workaholics.' "
Many executives aren't convinced their firms should offer such benefits, in part because the problem doesn't impact them personally, researchers say. When executives talk to us, they raise a lot of flags about costs and liability, says Mies of Fel-Pro. "But when it comes down to it, a lot of them say, 'I just don't know why it's our responsibility to help workers take care of their children.' "