Business responds to family concerns

At a recent board meeting of a large Hartford, Conn., company the chief personnel officer, the company's general counsel, and its directors were locked in discussion as the afternoon wore on. But the moment the digital clock clicked 5:00 p.m., the personnel officer gathered up her papers and briefcase.

''I get penalized a dollar for every minute I'm late at the day-care center, '' she explained.

''That's fine,'' said one director, opening the door for her. ''Don't worry about it.''

A. Norman Crowder III, vice president and principal of the management consulting firm of Towers, Perrin, Forster, and Crosby, who also was sitting in on this meeting, says that a few years ago such a scene would never have taken place.

The fact that it now is acceptable for employees to bring their family concerns to their jobs, and the fact that more of them at higher rungs on the corporate ladder are doing so, Mr. Crowder says, is a sign of business's evolving recognition of the changing US work force.

More than half of the women in the US are part of today's paid work force, and almost half of these 46 million working women are mothers of preschool children. These statistics, coupled with an increasing competition for skilled workers, especially in such growth industries as high-tech companies, banking, insurance firms, and hospitals, have led to a new ''underlying trend'' in business, according to Mr. Crowder. He heads his $100 million-a-year firm's office in Boston, which is cited as the most innovative city in the nation in employer-sponsored child care in a forthcoming Carnegie Corporation study.

Mr. Crowder says employees are more willing to speak up for what they want today than they have been in the past.Younger workers, especially those with a working spouse and prechool children, are telling management that they're not interested in a pension 40 years off. They want immediate benefits, such as employer-sponsored child care.

As a result, many companies now are offering flexible benefit packages, or what are sometimes called ''cafeteria benefits,'' to their workers. Employees select from a given assortment of benefits those that best suit their individual family circumstances.

Flexible working hours are another increasingly attractive option for both employer and employee. When eight female vice-presidents in one major Boston bank left work recently when they became pregnant, other area banks began reexamining their part-time work policies. After estimating that training for some positions was costing the First National Bank $100,000 per person, personnel officer Marion Gardner-Saxe says the bank explored ways to retain both its employees and its investments. As a result, 13 women who had requested more time at home with their preschool children now are sharing jobs.

Another very visible form of parent support is the company-owned, on-site day-care center, with Boston's Stride Rite Children's Center often cited as a model.

Employers who aren't willing to make the kind of long-term commitment an on-site center requires may choose to buy ''slots'' in a local child-care center , or may even join with other businesses in setting up a ''consortia'' program. Some businesses, like Boston's innovative Polaroid branch, have adopted a ''voucher'' program, in which employees purchase their own child-care services and are then reimbursed for them. Other companies support existing child-care services in a community by making contributions ''in kind,'' providing accounting skills, tax advice, and equipment to local day-care centers.

One of the most popular forms of employer-supported child care is an information and referral service. An estimated 6,300 companies in the United States have either set up their own child-care information systems or contracted with a private or public agency to counsel their employees and refer them to appropriate centers in the community.

A final and fast-growing option for business is parent education, in which employees are encouraged to gather at brown-bag lunch seminars to talk over family concerns, with an outside firm coordinating the discussions on a contract basis.

One such firm is COPE, a nationally recognized, Boston-based counseling and education organization which has been serving families since 1972. For the past year, it also has been working with the business community under developmental grants provided by the Rockefeller Family Fund.

''Two years ago, we began seeing a decline in attendance at our parent support groups, especially among women,'' says Martha Izzi, director of education, training, and research for COPE. ''Instead of dickering with the idea of whether or not, and when, they should return to work after having a child, they were going back to their jobs in six weeks. That was clearly putting an enormous strain on the family as well as the workplace. So when the Rockefeller people approached us, we said we wanted to repackage the kinds of support services we'd traditionally offered in a way that would be acceptable to management at the work place.''

The COPE staff did an assessment of 30 Boston companies, Mrs. Izzi says, and quickly learned that management was reluctant to address the issue of child care. Changing tactics and language, they talked less about support groups and more about education. In addition to bringing one-day informational ''parent fairs'' to the workplace, COPE began training staff and supervisory personnel who were dealing with employees on a day-to-day basis.

Business still has a long way to go in meeting the family needs of its employees, says Mrs. Izzi, but she's already looking ahead to future COPE programs. ''Child care is only one of many parent concerns,'' she explains. ''Those of us with teen-age children, for example, are interested in after-school care and activities. And then there are the issues of student aid programs, setting up family councils, and finding information about after-school jobs. We've really only just begun.''As COPE continues to establish ties with the business community, its affiliates are doing a number of innovative studies of Boston-based companies which may have national implications. Child Care Systems of Cambridge, Mass., staffed by two women with education and business backgrounds who also serve on the COPE faculty, is representative of a number of small, highly specialized consulting firms now springing up around the US which design child-care programs for business.

In the initial needs assessments they do for client companies, says the founder, Nancy Gross, they find consistent evidence of the impact of child-care issues on employee productivity. At one facility, for example, interviews turned up the following statistics: Some 45 percent of workers reported being late for work or having to leave work early because they couldn't find child care; 34 percent missed days at work because their child care arrangements fell through; 45 percent missed days at work because they couldn't arrange for adequate child care; 75 percent worried about the reliability of their present child care arrangements.

''When we present these figures to management, what we're really doing is educating them,'' Ms. Gross says. ''Because for child care programs to work, there has to be the understanding that there's a need. The final decisionmaker has to be someone who's going to support the program because he sees the benefits in it - for the company, and for his employees.''

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