Labor Department Honors Employers' Family-Friendly Policies
BOSTON — A year after 250,000 American women told the Department of Labor that they need better pay and benefits, more training, and more workplace support for families, the department is responding with a unique initiative: an ''Honor Roll'' of employers who pledge to improve women's working lives in concrete ways. The department hopes to gather 1,000 pledges by next spring. Already, more than 100 businesses, unions, organizations, and individuals have been accepted for the Working Women Count Honor Roll. To qualify, eligible programs or policies must have been established after April 1994, when the Working Women Count survey began. ''The policies women need are not rocket science,'' says Karen Nussbaum, director of the Women's Bureau at the labor department. ''What's needed is momentum behind them, so they cover many more workers. That's what we hope will happen through the honor roll.'' Ms. Nussbaum estimates that more than 1 million workers will benefit from these new policies. In San Francisco, eight businesses have formed the Bay Area Emergency Care Consortium. Employees dial an 800 number to get access to high-quality child and elder care when their usual arrangements fall through. In Washington, the Congress of National Black Churches Inc., will offer employees an annual training allowance of up to $1,500 for job-related education. Another honor roll participant, the City of Hollywood, Fla., has pledged to increase training opportunities for female employees. More than 60 percent of city employees are women in paraprofessional and support positions. ''We will be helping them enhance their skills and move into more responsible positions,'' says Guithele Ruiz, director of the equal opportunity office. Elsewhere, city employees in Kansas City, Mo., can now receive four hours of paid leave a year to participate in their children's school activities. Those without children can use the time to volunteer in the schools. ''We think it's significant that we're making a commitment to give people non-emergency leave,'' says Pam Whiting, communications director for Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, who proposed the benefit. ''This isn't reacting to the illness of a child or a loved one. This involves going to a parent-teacher conference or volunteering for an afternoon at a school.'' GTE Corporation of Needham, Mass., earned honor roll status by offering emergency child care on snow days and school holidays. Employees' children can accompany their parents to work, where a vendor provides arts and crafts programs, games, and videos. ''We thought it was really unfair for a lot of our employees, women particularly, to have to take the day off because schools are closed,'' explains Al Messier, director of work-force diversity. In rural Orting, Wash., the Washington Soldier Home and Colony has established a child-care center for 15 children of employees. ''It meets an incredible need,'' says Alfie Alvarado, superintendent of the veterans' home. ''It doesn't just help mothers. We have fathers who bring their children as well.'' Helping men as well as women remains one of the goals of honor roll organizers. ''So many issues women raised in the survey involved balancing work and family,'' Ms. Nussbaum says. ''When an employer provides subsidized emergency child and elder care, that helps the men in the company just as much as the women.'' Although some employers still express concern about the cost of adding benefits, Nussbaum sees greater willingness among executives to consider such issues. The Women's Bureau, she adds, will also offer what she calls technical assistance to help other companies replicate the programs on the honor roll. ''If an employer says, 'Oh, we could never provide subsidized elder care for people in our company,' we can say, 'We know 10 companies that are doing it. Here are their names and numbers. Call them to find out how they do it.''' Emphasizing the importance of the honor roll, Nussbaum says, ''This is really a difficult time. Most families are seeing their income stagnate or fall. The burdens on working families are tremendous. There's an urgent need for these kinds of changes.''