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Juggling Act

No Kidding : When It Comes to Benefits, the Childless Frequently Feel Cheated


Sometimes it's hard for Helen Ross to remember that she loves kids.

Helen (not her real name) is one of only two employees in her seven-worker office who does not have young children at home.

And it often falls to her and the other childless co-worker to stay late or come in on holidays when the parents in her office have to pick the kids up from day care or rush home to care for an ill child.

Yet the office's work--handling media relations for a major nonprofit organization--often demands odd hours and short deadlines.

"It happens a lot," Ross says. "On the one hand, I feel for [the parents'] situation and . . . I want them to take care of the needs of their families. But when you're stuck with the additional workload, it becomes a delicate emotional balancing act."

As more couples and singles find that they cannot have children, or decide that a childless lifestyle is right for them, such emotional conflicts at work can breed resentment, work-family specialists say.

The majority of workers do not have children, and that percentage is creeping up, from 61.4% in 1988 to 61.6% in 1995, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

A small but vocal cadre of childless people has even begun to question long-standing employer benefit policies such as time off or health benefits for dependents, which they argue unfairly benefit parents at the expense of the childless.

"It's totally unfair and irrational," says Sherman Oaks native Leslie Lafayette, who has advocated the rights of childless people through her ChildFree Network for the last four years.

Lafayette, now a restaurateur and resident of Roseville, near Sacramento, is the author of "Why Don't You Have Kids? Living a Full Life Without Parenthood" (Kensington Publishers, New York) and advises companies on how to make their policies more equitable.

"I don't see why the workplace should be a place you get punished simply because your ovaries don't work . . . or because you've made a choice," she says.

So far, the conflicting interests of workers with children and those without them is being worked out office by office.

By and large, singles and people without children "tend to be understanding . . . about people with children; they tend to be supportive about policies that make life easier for people with children," says Robin Hardman, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Families and Work Institute in New York, which does research on such issues.

In addition, childless workers, who are in a position to be more flexible with their hours and out-of-town assignments, may have an edge when it comes to promotions.

Parents in general tend to be sensitive to the burdens they may impose on their childless co-workers, making it up by taking on additional tasks, taking work home or otherwise filling in when they can, experts say.

At the same time, says Bonnie Michaels, president of Managing Work & Family Inc., a consulting firm based in Evanston, Ill.: "It's difficult for singles to get the same kind of recognition for their own personal lives--that they, too, need time off."

Some forward-thinking employers are attempting to redress that inequity. Levi Strauss & Co. has been particularly innovative with its time-off policy.

The San Francisco-based apparel maker recently lumped all of its time-off programs--sick leave, vacation, floating holidays--into one program, giving every employee a fixed number of scheduled and unscheduled paid days off to take as he or she pleases. Thus a parent can take an unexpected day off to care for a sick child, and a childless worker can do the same to deal with an ailing parent.

"Most companies try to address the issues of maybe 80% of their workers and say to hell with everyone else," says Reese Smith, director of employee benefits for Levi Strauss. "They don't take the time to try to figure out what the diverse groups need."

Motorola Inc. revamped its entire program of employee benefits at the beginning of the year, in part to broaden their applicability to all of its 76,000 workers across the country.

Among other things, the Schaumburg, Ill.-based company surveyed its employees and added benefits for areas such as elder care and continuing education in addition to the more traditional child-care and health benefits.

Advocates for the childless would like to see companies go further. They propose that a company offer a fixed number of cafeteria-style benefits to every employee to pick and choose as needed. A parent can choose health coverage for her four children; a childless worker can choose the same amount of coverage for his spouse or elderly parents.

"There seems to be a trend of companies calling these policies work-life or work-personal life programs, rather than work-family programs," says Hardman at the Families and Work Institute. "The clear implication is that they're not just for employees with families but for any worker."

Such programs remain in the minority, however, and it is often left to individual employees to figure things out for themselves.

"In my office, the only issue is when the staff members with children have to leave early because they have to pick up kids," says Katherine Johansen, a childless nutrition and health educator at the UC Irvine.

She also resents being reprimanded for coming in late whereas a parent who arrives tardy because of a problem with a child is given more slack.

Still, she praises UC Irvine for making accommodations for all of its workers. And, she adds: "I think we work with it. There's an understanding of the flexibility required; we negotiate it. I think the individual who has children is very open to . . . flexing her schedule at different times. She realizes that it is sometimes inconvenient and makes accommodations at other times."

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