Journal Issue: Caring for Infants and Toddlers Volume 11 Number 1 Spring/Summer 2001
Employers have made great strides in helping parents of young children to succeed at work and provide the care their children need. Even so, support remains limited, particularly for those who need it the most. Intractable workplace practices can also undermine the effectiveness of work/life initiatives that are offered.
Given recent trends, it is likely that more companies will adopt work/family supports in the future, especially large companies in healthy industry sectors located in the Northeast and the West. Flexible work options are likely to expand in companies of all sizes—often spurred by issues of traffic, environment, and technology. National organizations and community activists have made special efforts to devise group strategies to help small and midsize employers offer work/life programs, and these may be effective with the most profitable organizations. However, unlike large corporations, small and mid-sized companies are seldom motivated by the pressure for political correctness or the desire to be the "employer of choice," so they are less likely to provide child care supports for their working parents.
Low-income families are even less likely to have access to workplace supports. The supportive policies of many large companies do not trickle down to this sector of the workforce, and many employers of low-wage workers are not as committed to work/life supports. Therefore, government tax credits for companies that create child care solutions should target employers of low-wage workers. The public policy goal should not be to increase the number of employers offering such support as much as to motivate employers to help those in greatest need.
In addition, more employers may offer child care help through community involvement and public-private partnerships. Employer expertise has been tapped by national and state efforts to investigate new financing structures for child care. Several corporate leaders have a long history of investment in children and family services, such as Johnson & Johnson, IBM, AT&T, Target stores, and Hewlett-Packard. Some have developed special funds dedicated to improving services for young children and families. Most notable is the American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care that has invested $125 million from 25 major corporations in efforts to expand the supply and improve the quality of child care and elder care services. More involvement on community task forces may help educate companies about the need for more targeted giving. The 1998 Business Work/Life Study found that only 13% of large companies and 6% of the smallest firms provided community support to family programs.18
The political clout of corporations is also an underused resource. Human resources staff rarely communicate with the company's government affairs staff to lobby for government policies that could support family life for employees. Generally, business has adopted a posture of "no mandates" and lobbies against government proposals that would require companies to offer new protections to employees (such as the FMLA). Even government initiatives that do not involve employer mandates, such as the earned income tax credit and funding for child care worker training or salaries, have not benefited from a supportive voice within the business community. Minimal efforts can go a long way, as was found in Florida, where a commitment made by business leaders to engage in one hour of lobbying per month on children's issues has resulted in significant improvements to child care delivery in the community.49
As this article makes clear, it is important not to put too much emphasis on one support, like child care. Instead, the contributions that companies can make to working parents should be seen in the context of broader workplace changes. Many larger companies have renamed their efforts from work/family to work/life, as they seek to make their benefits packages equitable to a range of employees. While this trend may help more companies feel comfortable with a work/life agenda, it may diminish a special focus on the needs of families and children.
In an article in The Conference Board's Across the Board Magazine, the author suggests that the drive by companies to create a competitive advantage and shareholder value has placed pressures on employees—pressures that have gotten out of hand.50 ". . . There is no longer any practical limitation to what a business can ask of its employees." Even well-meaning managers who say, "I don't want you here on weekends; I don't want the phone or fax to interfere with your family time," cannot follow through on that commitment because of the pressures at work. The article concludes, "And so we suck more and more from people's lives, and we regret that that's necessary. . . . and in response . . . we build day-care centers and . . . offer flextime and job sharing and telecommuting. . . . Then we sit back, satisfied that we've done what we can do, even though we know in our hearts that this can't be right, that the problem . . . is too deep and too real to be satisfactorily addressed by such superficial steps."50
Work/life issues are influenced not only by personal and family factors, but by workplace factors that inhibit employees' sense of personal well-being and thereby, their full contribution to the workplace. Therefore, employers must look at the culture of the organization and the way that people are treated, valued, managed, and promoted—even though these issues are much more difficult for companies to deal with than implementing new benefits and services. The imperative is to find a work/life "fit," or at least a peaceful coexistence, by reconciling the two spheres of life and keeping both spheres accountable. Companies must recognize that supports may be needed because of personal problems or excessive work demands. Either way, companies should anticipate these inevitabilities. Working parents, especially working mothers, are here to stay. It is time now to give them the support they need.