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THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA JOB MARKET: LOOKING FOR LIGHT : ANALYSIS : Job Site, Sweet Job Site : Some employers see their work force as their best investment, and believe that hard times are the wrong time to scrimp on benefits. Southern California is home to some of these '100 Best' places to work.

September 20, 1993|James Flanigan | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The job scene in Southern California today is like a river in a storm--the surface is troubled, but below, the current continues on course, cutting new grooves and pathways in the earth. With the region in recession and the security of most jobs brutally uncertain, it may come as a surprise that Southern California remains home to some of the best places to work in America.

These are companies that offer good benefits, especially child care, and a challenging environment--and do not look upon their benefits as frills. For the most part, the companies named in the book "The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America" or Working Mother magazine's list of the 100 best firms for women with children have not cut back on benefits during the recession.

"A manufacturing firm wouldn't cut investment and maintenance on its machinery during hard times, so we can't cut investment in our people," said Wanda Lee, vice president of human resources of Pacificare Health Systems, a Cypress-based health maintenance organization.

Pacificare--which already pays a child care subsidy to most of its 2,000-plus employees--is building a center with places for 120 children. Mattel Inc., the El Segundo-based toy maker, is building a child care center with 84 places.

Both companies say that making on-site child care available boosts productivity because it relieves employees of anxiety.

"We found that child-related absences accounted for the loss of 500 workdays," said Donna Gibbs, a spokeswoman for Mattel, which has 1,200 employees.

In addition, the toy company--which has a working mother, Jill E. Barad, as its president and chief operating officer--now allows vacation time to be taken in one-hour increments so parents can attend school activities. It makes provision for sick-child days, flexible scheduling and job sharing--when two part-time workers divide one full week of work.

Such innovations are common-sense at a time when 71% of U.S. women with children under 6 years old are working. And they are also part of a trend toward companies providing for individual needs, of being flexible to accommodate employees' personal lives.

"Flexibility was not approved of in the old industrial age, but it's just what is needed now, especially in service and high-technology industries," labor economist Audrey Freedman said.

It may seem odd to talk of companies catering to employee needs when downsizing has come into the language and cutbacks and layoffs seem the order of the day. But cutbacks and layoffs are the hallmarks of companies brought up short by change and trying to lose weight to survive.

There is another reality of mostly smallish firms that cope with changing markets, and they depend on their employees being secure enough to shift gears when circumstances change--never an easy thing for human beings.

Odetics Inc. of Anaheim is such a firm. Employees are called associates. Informal gabfests are encouraged and parties are frequent--but working hours are long and tasks are demanding. The company, now 22 years old, has managed to evolve from a supplier of tape recorders for the space program to a $70-million sales company making automated tape libraries for the television and computer industries. Odetics also makes closed-circuit video recording equipment for security and surveillance systems--the kind used in all-night convenience stores and at bank teller machines.

Odetics, which currently is making a secondary offering of stock on the market, is not wildly profitable. It was hurt last year, along with virtually everybody else in Southern California, by the decline in defense spending.

But it keeps up its investments in research and development and wouldn't think of cutting its employee benefits, which include a gym and trainer as well as a swimming pool, basketball and volleyball courts at its Anaheim headquarters. The payoff from such investments is clear: Odetics has made transitions from government work to the commercial marketplace and then developed another business, so that it now serves three distinct and growing markets. To do that demands a high degree of employee involvement and dedication.

Innovative employee policies work even for a onetime savings and loan, First Federal Bank of California, which employs 560 people at its Santa Monica headquarters and 28 branches around the Southland. Benefits include company-owned condominiums (with pool and tennis courts) in Indian Wells and Palm Springs that employees can use for a week or a weekend.

"The idea is that many employees couldn't otherwise afford to take a first-class vacation with their families," explained bank spokeswoman Jacqueline Kittaka. The bank also has extensive training programs and a no-layoff policy. It is credited with good policies on minority hiring by authors Robert Levering and Milton Moskowitz in their book about the 100 best employers.

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