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BUSINESS PULSE: A SPECIAL REPORT : BENEFITS : Bergen Brunswig Finds Fulfillment in Nurturing Families : Family care: Firm believes that programs aimed at working parents help it compete for quality employees.


It began quietly two years ago in the company's hallways--the equivalent of the back yard fence of past decades--where working mothers stopped to compare notes on common concerns, such as discipline, self-esteem, or whether to lie about missing work because of sick children.

Fathers became interested, and soon they formed a Working Parents Support Group to hire professionals to speak on parenting topics at lunchtime. Next, managers joined in and helped create a formal Family Issues Task Force to educate department heads on family problems and how they can help.

Eventually, the movement swelled into a still-expanding array of benefits, making Orange-based Bergen Brunswig Corp. a pioneer among Orange County employers in enacting family support programs.

At the headquarters of the pharmaceutical and videocassette distribution company, family benefits range from free telephone counseling to child care assistance, "telecommuting" and compressed work weeks.

In April, the company received the Family Advocate Award from the Child Abuse Council of Orange County. Under the company's list of benefits its 600 workers may:

* Earmark up to $5,000 of their salary for a tax-free account to pay for care for aging parents as well as children;

* Use a free telephone counseling service, Prime Time, for advice on such topics as finding care for infants, toddlers and latchkey children, evaluating care givers, creating a child-care backup system and re-entering a career after maternity leave;

* Obtain a free family portrait after the birth of a child, tack up family photos in a cafeteria "brag board," and rent family videos--from Disney cartoons to Italian cooking lessons--from an in-house library;

* Attend lunchtime parenting seminars with paid speakers and receive a quarterly newsletter covering such topics as "The Home-School Connection."

Depending on their type of work, some workers receive home computers for occasional home-based work, or are offered flexible work hours or compressed work weeks, such as four 10-hour days, or nine 9-hour days, with an extra day off every two weeks.

In addition, the company is guaranteeing seven slots at the Crystal Cathedral Child Care Center in September on a first-come, first-served basis.

An on-site day care center, funded jointly with other major employers in the Mall of Orange area where Bergen Brunswig is located, appears more realistic than it did a few years ago, because insurance is easier to find, company Vice President Jack Fay said. Also under consideration are on-site laundry, dry cleaning and automobile services.

Company officials believe family benefits will help it compete for quality workers in a tight labor market and reduce stress on working parents.

Indeed, Anne Roth, a mother of 3-year-old twins, said the main reasons she took a secretarial job at the company were the child-care benefits and flexible working hours, as well as the opportunity to work with the child-care task force.

But company president Robert Martini said the rare array of benefits would not likely have materialized unless the employees, known as "associates," had taken the initiative. "It's not the kind of thing management can say what to do and how to do it," he said. "We've provided the forum for them to do it."

"That's the only way it can work," agreed Dorothy Bregozzo, director of media and travel services, and a mother who helped create the parent support group. "Senior management doesn't know what the issues are."

Workers initially surveyed more than a dozen large companies in Orange County, but found nothing to emulate. Through their own research, they discovered services such as Prime Time telephone counseling for child-care issues.

Employees looking for flex-time or home-based work were boosted by South Coast Air Quality Management District requirements that the company cut the number of commuting vehicles by 137 or face a hefty fine.

For Lynne Bowers, 32, a single mother of a 4-year-old daughter and manager of marketing research strategies, being given the option of working at home--so-called telecommuting--is a "godsend."

Using a company-purchased IBM personal computer, she said she works from her Manhattan Beach home one or two days a week. Business calls are forwarded directly to her home and her daughter attends a preschool program while she works.

With time she would have used for commuting, she said that she devotes more hours to work and to her daughter's development.

In lunchtime parenting seminars, Bowers said she learned how to ask questions in parent-teacher conferences.

"I did it and now I have a much better relationship with the teacher," she said.

Because she has to make fewer choices between work and home, she said that she has less stress now. "It's not possible to be super career person or super mom," she said. "Unless you want a very short life."

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