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Juggling Act

How the Mother Half Lives : More Firms Realize That Accommodating the Needs of New Parents and Others Can Benefit the Bottom Line


After accountant Lori Husein gave birth more than 12 weeks prematurely to a 1 1/2-pound girl, she needed flexibility at work while her daughter was in the hospital.

For a time, she worked 30 hours a week on special projects. When Sarah, now 2 1/2, came home, Husein took 10 weeks' leave, telecommuting a bit. Then she switched to an "85% schedule"--in her demanding profession, that means 40 hours a week instead of 55. Despite the reduced hours, she has stayed on track for advancement and was recently promoted to senior manager along with her peers in downtown Los Angeles.

The willingness of her firm, Deloitte & Touche, to arrange alternatives helped turn what could have been a stressful reentry into a smooth, upbeat affair.

"It is an extremely supportive environment," said Husein, 36, who lives in San Gabriel.

Ever since women began plunging en masse into the work force 30 years ago, the issue of how to accommodate them after a maternity or adoption leave has been bubbling to the surface at countless companies. Female employees often feel reluctant to bring up the subject of leave, reduced hours or job sharing for fear of encountering stony resistance from supervisors. Rather than appear to be lacking in dedication, many simply suffer in silence, attempting to juggle a full workload with weighty family responsibilities, compounded by exhaustion.

Corporations that sought to ease the way back to work were often viewed as being altruistic or inclined to make special arrangements for particularly valuable workers.

Now, however, some companies are increasingly realizing that making adjustments--not only for new mothers but also for other employees with obligations outside work--can benefit the bottom line.

"We're able to retain very capable individuals who would otherwise leave the firm," said Sherry Berkman, Los Angeles-area human resources director for Deloitte & Touche. "And it's an excellent recruiting tool."

These days, anyone--male or female--can find the ability to work altered by such responsibilities as child or elder care, personal development or community work. Enlightened employers are often happy to accommodate the needs of such workers, but employees must also be willing to make some sacrifices. Compromise will occasionally be in order if employees want their bosses to accept their new realities, which might include occasional child-care emergencies or an inability to work extra hours or travel extensively.

Susan Moriconi, health benefits and work-life manager for Hewlett-Packard Co. in Palo Alto, recalled an employee's request that she be allowed to return to work part time after a maternity leave. Moriconi told her that such a schedule would be fine for three months but that she would need the employee full time beginning the fourth month, when the company would be going through the annual ritual of benefit enrollment.

"She was willing to accommodate my business need," Moriconi said. "Flexibility has to be a reciprocal thing, not just the employee going in and saying, 'I need, I want.' There may be some back-and-forth."

At Southern California Bank, the human resources department is taking a role in a long-term education process to help managers become aware of the challenges of balancing work and family.

"At many organizations, managers aren't uncaring,"said Ann McPartlin, executive vice president and director of human resources at the Anaheim-based bank. "It's just that they don't have that perspective."

Among other policies, the bank allows workers to take vacation days in less than full-day increments, enabling them to attend school functions or take a parent to the doctor.

Her advice to workers wanting a flexible arrangement is to "pave the way beforehand by being a strong team player and developing strong relationships with colleagues." If an employee has demonstrated a willingness to help co-workers on a regular basis, they, in turn, will be more likely to jump in if that employee has a family emergency.

As women rise through the ranks at accounting, consulting and law firms, employers are having to grapple more often with the flexibility issue. Women in these professions often find there is still a stigma attached to being a mom, especially if family is seen as interfering with work for clients.

Bankruptcy lawyer Elissa Miller, 40, of Los Feliz changed firms after her daughter, Mara, was born.

"I had worked for all men for seven years, and they had certain expectations," she said of her previous employer. "I don't think I would have been able to easily change those."

She now works "three-quarters time" at Sulmeyer, Kupetz, Baumann & Rothman in Los Angeles, a firm with what she called a "brief history of employing women on a less-than- full-time basis."

"I took more than a 30% cut in pay and benefits, and I don't accrue vacation," Miller said. Moreover, "it doesn't appear that any of us [working part time] are on track for partnership."

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