Babies and business

THE powerful business lobbies that successfully opposed the parental-leave bill in Congress sent a sobering reminder to the nation's workers: Family is still not a popular word in the board rooms of America. The word has its corporate uses, to be sure. Advertisers speak proudly of ``our family of fine products.'' Managers issue memos inviting ``everyone in the Acme family'' to turn out for the annual picnic.

But when talk turns to a conventional, non-corporate definition of family - a real daddy, a real mommy, and their 2.3 children - the mood in the board room often changes. The unspoken rule becomes: It's OK to display a smiling photo of your family on your desk, but don't bother us with your domestic concerns.

Yet domestic concerns loom increasingly large for the growing ranks of working parents who are struggling with insufficient leaves and inadequate child care. These employees know it is hard for a new mother to be fully productive when she must return to work just weeks after giving birth. They admit it is hard to concentrate on a job at 3 o'clock when a six-year-old is coming home to an empty house.

The parental-leave and child-care measures that died in the Senate would have alleviated some of these problems. Yet the bills raise legitimate concerns about the proper role of government in dictating corporate policy. Many opponents insist that they do not question the merits of parental or medical leave, but believe benefits must remain the prerogative of individual employers.

Still, the presence of large numbers of women in the work force has created a need for new, if still uneasy, partnerships between babies and business. Business leaders cannot, in good conscience, consider the demise of the family-aid package a victory. They must take it as a signal that the ball is now in the corporate court. If government intrusion is not the answer, then corporate initiatives must be the next step.

As progressive companies experiment with family-oriented benefits, creative solutions are emerging:

Flexible schedules. International Business Machines just announced a benefits package including unpaid leaves of absence of up to three years, more flexible work hours, and possible work-at-home options.

Referral services. Nearly 1,000 companies offer programs to match workers' needs with local resources. For example, in July Arthur Andersen & Co., a Chicago-based accounting firm, announced two new referral programs to assist its employees in finding child care and elder care.

On-site child care. Merck & Co., a pharmaceutical concern based in Rahway, N.J., committed $500,000 to build a child-care center for 140 children. The company also offers 18 months of unpaid parental leave and a child-care referral service.

Flexible spending accounts. According to the Conference Board, more than 1,500 companies are willing to subtract money from an employee's gross salary and apply it to child-care costs, thus reducing taxes on that benefit.

Earned time. Instead of giving employees separate blocks of time for vacations, holidays, illness, and personal business, a few firms, such as SDK Healthcare Information Systems, lump all leave together, allowing workers to take it as they wish.

Prenatal care programs. About 150 companies, among them Sunbeam, Quaker Oats, and the Los Angeles Times, offer prenatal health programs to reduce the risk of premature births.

``Cafeteria'' benefits. These packages, offered by companies such as Primerica and Chemical Bank, allow employees to choose options that best suit their family needs - swapping dental insurance for more child care, for instance, or trading duplicate health insurance coverage for another benefit.

Alternative work schedules. Flexible hours, part-time, and job-sharing options can resolve many work-family issues. A program called Select Time, begun this year at NCNB Corporation, allows employees to decrease their work schedules by about 25 percent (but still work at least 15 hours a week) and receive prorated compensation and benefits.

Proponents of the failed Family and Medical Leave Act have promised to reintroduce the bill next year. Whatever the outcome then, one thing is certain: The days are numbered when companies can continue to talk grandly about an extended corporate family while doing nothing to help the real-life families in their midst - and, incidentally, help themselves, since less worried parents are more productive workers.

At that moment of enlightened self-interest - now postponed - a family, in the corporate sense, will be more than a framed photograph on a worker's desk.

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