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Small Businesses Are Employing a More Family-Friendly Approach

Workplace: Recently passed laws and research groups are helping to foster a balance between home and office.

August 09, 1996|PAT PRINCE ROSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Barbara Price knows what it's like to have a job that doesn't work.

"I had to be at the office at 8 a.m.," she recalls. "But the school bus didn't come until 8. . . . If the baby-sitter didn't show, then I was late and got yelled at. But if you've been yelled at too many times, you suddenly develop the flu and call in sick for the whole day."

Now that Price is the boss--she owns a mailing equipment business near Pomona--she encourages her seven employees to schedule their work hours to accommodate their family needs.

Her tiny company also offers a comprehensive benefits package, something she scoured the landscape to do. And yes, in a pinch, she lets employees bring their kids to work.

"Family-friendly" has become the workplace buzzword of the 1990s--the politically correct thing to espouse and be. Mostly, it's the big businesses that get all the attention, with their dazzling array of benefits.

But it's not just the Fortune 500 companies that need to help employees manage home and work roles. In ways both small and large, there is increasing recognition that in order to be competitive, small businesses must also respond to changing work force demographics.

On Capitol Hill, as one of their last acts of this congressional session, lawmakers passed a bevy of bills that would make it easier for small business to provide employees with much-needed health and pension benefits.

Researchers at the Families and Work Institute in New York are in the early stages of forming a council of small-business representatives to address the special challenges small businesses face.

"We want to learn if what the large corporations are doing applies to small businesses and how they may need to change," said Cali Williams, senior research associate for the organization. "There's a lot of excitement around the topic."

About 37 million Americans--39% of all Americans who work for an employer--work at companies with fewer than 100 employees. And although most small businesses are focused on survival, many are also finding that helping employees balance their work and family roles may be necessary to achieve those bottom-line business goals.

"In a way, work-family issues are of particular interest to small businesses," said Robin Hardman, a spokeswoman for the Families and Work Institute. "The fastest-growing segment of business owners is women, and it seems to be women who are leading the way in work-family measures in small businesses. The owners themselves may be facing the same pressures their employees are."

How to provide work-family benefits on a shoestring is "absolutely a major topic of discussion among our members," said Mary Schnack, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles chapter of the National Assn. of Women Business Owners.

Price and others like her are finding that with a little creativity and perseverance, they can create workplaces that work.

"One of the biggest trends is the realization that one of the major things people need is flexibility so they can set their schedules to match their needs," said Sandy Burud, president of a work-life consulting firm in Pasadena. Because small businesses are generally less bureaucratic, it often is easier for them to institute such policies, experts say.

Price, who started her business seven years ago, uses this as a selling point when she's hiring. "We don't have to say, 'Well, if I let everybody do that, where would we be?' " she said.

When Mark Sanfillipo interviewed for a sales position with Price a couple of months ago, he took her at her word. "I really wanted the job and everything sounded good," said Sanfillipo, 29, of LaVerne. "But I had to be honest and tell her that I couldn't be here at 8 like everybody else." He has to care for his young son until the baby-sitter arrives.

Price was happy to let Sanfillipo start his day at 9. "That commitment means a great deal to me," he said.

Flexible scheduling is also standard procedure for the 10 employees at Colby Care Nurses, a Culver City business that provides home health care. "In the '90s, we have to try all kinds of things to keep things viable," owner Carolyn Colby said.

Four employees work four 10-hour days so they can spend time with their families. Others work split shifts, taking off four hours midday to care for their kids until their partners or sitters can take over.

Ileene Bernard, whose London Temporary Services was recently recognized for its family-friendly practices by Los Angeles County, goes a step further.

Her 35 employees receive two half-days a month of paid leave for personal time, in addition to their regular vacation time.

Although it can be a daunting task, many small employers are also finding ways to provide more tangible benefits. Perhaps the most cost-effective is a dependent-care assistance program, which allows employees to pay for up to $5,000 in child or elder care from pretax earnings. The only cost to the employer is for record keeping.

Price said she offered flexible scheduling "from day one" and gradually added health insurance, a cafeteria plan and, last year, a 401(k) retirement plan.

She was able to pull it off by going through an employee leasing firm, whose payroll her workers are now on. She leases them back on a long-term basis. That allows her to qualify for the leasing firm's lower group rate and freed her of the paperwork. She figures the benefits add about 20% to her payroll costs.

The cost of providing benefits is often a hardship to small businesses struggling to stay alive. But, said Price, "I believe it's the cost of doing business.

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