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Is Your Job Tot-Friendly?

The term family-friendly benefits has been touted so much lately, you might think employers from Washington to Waikiki are lavishing cushy perks on their staffs to ease the demands of being a new working parent.

The truth is, when it comes to "family-friendliness," the workplace is a mixed bag. Some companies consider you lucky to even have a job; others provide a range of perks  -- lactation advice, an education fund redeemable when your child is 18, even reimbursement for childcare costs if you work overtime.

Naturally, your goal is to have your family and work life mesh as seamlessly as possible. The trick is to first assess how your employer registers on the family-friendliness scale, and then work with what you have  -- either by using what's available or suggesting ways to improve the situation.

Looking for Perks

So where do you start? Check out what your employer offers by reading your employee or benefits handbook or meeting with your human-resources representative, union steward, or, in the case of a small outfit, the company president. If you work for a large corporation, there may be someone specifically in charge of work/life benefits, or the firm's intranet may serve up lists of programs and the names of staffers to call with questions.

Also, ask around to find out if your boss has accommodated such requests as working from home on occasion or extra days off to care for a sick child. Sometimes, although it isn't company policy, a big-hearted boss will give you the okay.

Even when a company offers good benefits, employees may not take full advantage of them. A boss may discourage using flextime, for example, or a company may be lax about letting its perks be known. A new mother could be fearful that she won't get ahead if she asks to telecommute or wants to take a few hours off to spend time at her child's daycare center.

"People are very nervous about asking for a change in the status quo," says Nancy Collamer, a career consultant in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, who specializes in alternative work arrangements for mothers. "There's concern about how their job commitment will be viewed and worries about being put on a ‘mommy track.'"

Ellen Galinsky, president of the New York City-based Families and Work Institute (FWI), which has surveyed firms nationwide about family-friendly benefits, maintains that employers must take the lead in promoting those benefits.

"Companies need to do more," she says. "Senior management needs to make it known that these programs exist. And supervisors need to be judged in part on how well they manage work/life issues."

In last year's FWI survey of firms with at least 100 employees, 38 percent offered job sharing, 33 percent allowed regular telecommuting, a scant 9 percent provided on-site or nearby daycare, and 5 percent reimbursed for childcare costs.

Without question, the biggest bonus for working parents is time off around the birth or adoption of a child, which is mandated by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). It requires that businesses of 50 or more people give employees at least 12 weeks of unpaid leave for childbirth or adoption.

The FMLA is law, but other perks are optional. Take a look at what some companies around the country are doing to help parents:

RESOURCE AND REFERRALS (R&R).

R&R services can assist you in everything from dealing with emergency childcare to natural disasters. This spring, for example, an R&R rep at the General Motors' plant in Oklahoma City gave workshops on helping kids cope with tornadoes. And Marriott International's Associate Resource Line dispenses advice on such topics as single parenting and child development 24 hours a day  -- in 152 languages!

PART-TIME SCHEDULES.

Although working less than 35 hours a week generally means a pay cut, it may not result in a loss of benefits. Some companies allow part-timers to keep their benefits if they clock in between 8 and 20 hours a week; pharmaceutical corporation Merck has set no minimum number of weekly hours.

FLEXTIME.

Does the old nine-to-five routine not fit with your new life as a parent? Flextime can mean coming in at 10:30 AM and leaving at 6:30 PM, or working varying shifts and days. For example, at Union Pacific Resources Company, based in Fort Worth, Texas, employees can begin their workday between 6 AM and 9 AM and end it between 3 PM and 6 PM

COMPRESSED WORK WEEK.

At the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Philadelphia, workers represented by Teamsters Local 830 can put in three 13.3 hour days, rather than a full week of eight-hour days.

ALTERNATIVE WORK SCHEDULES.

Employees at BP Exploration (Alaska) based in Anchorage get every other Friday off after working 80 hours over nine days, and some sales representatives at the American Home Products Corporation, headquartered in Madison, New Jersey, are free to fashion their own work schedules.

JOB SHARING.

Workers share one job, split a salary, and often keep their benefits. New York City's Bell Atlantic has 50 pairs of job sharers, including executive moms Susan Manix and Charlotte Schutzman, who have divvied up a job for a decade or so.

"It's kind of like having a relief pitcher come in and finish up the game for you," explains Manix, who makes time to talk to Schutzman every Sunday night. Each week Schutzman works Mondays and Tuesdays, Manix Thursdays and Fridays, and the pair alternates Wednesdays.

FLEXIBLE SPENDING ACCOUNTS.

Also known as dependent-care assistance plans, these accounts allow you to deduct up to $5,000 annually from your taxable income and apply it to childcare fees. The money comes out of your paycheck and goes into a fund. Once you submit proof of payment, you're reimbursed for eligible expenses. Also, some companies (Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, MassMutual, headquartered in Springfield, MA, and the Turner Broadcasting System, TBS, based in Atlanta) offer sliding-scale childcare fees, with lower-income workers paying the least.

COMPANY-SUPPORTED CHILDCARE CENTERS.

Although this is still uncommon, some progressive companies provide it, either in on-site or nearby centers. Some centers, including one for MassMutual and the 13-year-old operation at Lancaster Laboratories, in Lancaster, PA, will take infants, accept youngsters of part-timers, and, occasionally, step in during a childcare emergency.

Lancaster's HR manager Margaret Stoltzfus, who used the facility for her two daughters, says the company's childcare program is a big plus: "I used to nurse (my first baby) and have lunch with her or just check in during the day. It eased my transition back."

LACTATION ROOMS AND COUNSELLING.

A number of workplaces supply lactation rooms or advice, but the Calvert Group, a mutual-funds company in Bethesda, MD, provides breast pumps, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power offers lactation counseling for men, so they can support their partners.

TELECOMMUTING.

Working at home from your computer and sending the material to the office electronically can be a boost for parents in professional and administrative jobs, slashing commuting time and costs and allowing more hours with your tyke.

If the Pickins' Are Slim

Even though your job environment may not be particularly family-friendly, you can try and improve your situation. Here's how to do it:

  • Be realistic about your workplace. If you're at a mom-and-pop operation, you may not be able to get the same deal as your friend at a corporation.

  • Decide what's most important. Do you need to work around your spouse's schedule? Is subsidized childcare essential? Use your priorities to determine what's worth fighting for.

  • Negotiate perks for yourself  -- or with others. If there are several nursing mothers, organize the group to ask for a lactation room. However, if you're the only one who wants a part-time schedule, go it alone.

  • Research the costs and the logistics of getting the benefits and give your supervisor a written report.

  • Address your boss's concerns. If she's wary of job sharing, for example, document who will cover what and how you'll communicate with her regularly about your progress.

  • Know when to leave. If you've tried unsuccessfully to improve your job's "family-friendliness" or have found a sweeter gig for you and Baby, it may be time to move on.

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