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More Than Fun and Games: Mattel Pays Employees to Volunteer at School

November 01, 1998|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS

Weekdays generally find Bob Dung behind a desk at Mattel Inc. in El Segundo analyzing acquisitions or setting up new distribution centers, among other things.

But a recent morning found Dung in his daughter's kindergarten classroom setting out school supplies--and getting paid for it by Mattel.

"Being a dad of the '90s, I demanded of myself to get involved with my kids' education," said Dung, who also has a son in first grade and a 3-year-old daughter who until recently attended Mattel's highly regarded child-care center.

"I think it's great that Mattel does this," Dung said. "It lets me see what my kids are doing in school."

Mattel, which molds millions of Barbies and Hot Wheels each year, wants to help shape the minds that play with its products today and may create its products in the future.

Research has repeatedly shown that schools do a better job when parents volunteer their time during the school day. But more parents than ever have a job that demands their presence during school hours.

Meanwhile, school remains, by necessity, a club organized around the schedule of at-home spouses. (Just ask any parent who has been scolded by a teacher for not putting a kid to bed by 7:30 p.m., when that is more like the time many working parents are putting dinner on the table--but that's another story.)

There is a solution to this seeming dilemma that Mattel and some other employers have discovered: Give employees paid time off to volunteer at schools during school hours. Mattel Chairman and Chief Executive Jill E. Barad, whose company launched this benefit in 1995, has challenged other CEOs to form a neat line behind her.

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California law requires employers with 25 or more workers at a single location to grant them up to 40 hours a year each of unpaid leave to attend school activities, assist in classrooms and meet with teachers. But many working parents never take advantage of this right, even though parental participation in schools is key to improving their children's achievement.

"Three decades of research have demonstrated that academic achievement is greatly affected by parent involvement. This impact is sustained regardless of the grade of the child, the socioeconomic status of the family or the highest educational level attained by the parents," said a policy paper released last year by the Center for Work and Family at Boston College.

In 1994, Mattel commissioned a survey that found parents consider educational involvement a priority. But these parents said they face barriers such as lack of employer support and free time.

In response, Mattel adopted a "school leave policy" that gives full-time employees 16 hours a year of paid time off to volunteer at schools, even if they aren't parents. Part-time employees get eight hours a year.

The employee is responsible for arranging in advance to take the time, and approval of the request is "based on a balancing of the business needs with the employee's personal needs. A supervisor should make every reasonable effort to accommodate an employee's request," the policy states.

About 40% of the company's employees who were surveyed in August said they have used the leave at least once, and another 40% said they plan to, said Paul Millman, director of the Mattel Foundation, Mattel's philanthropic arm, which gives about $4.5 million a year to charities.

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The foundation is pushing Mattel's challenge to other corporations to develop similar policies and has sent more than 2,000 letters since mid-August from Barad, the mother of two teenage sons, to other chief executives.

Mattel received a letter from a small Colorado company jumping on board, as well as "a tremendous amount of feedback from companies saying, 'It's a tremendous idea and we're going to look into it,' " Millman said.

Of course, Mattel isn't the only corporation to address parental involvement in education.

Some companies handle requests by providing flexible schedules or make it easier for parents to get unpaid time off in small increments. Other companies encourage volunteering at particular schools that have been adopted.

Mattel also funds the Hand in Hand organization, based at the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, which promotes partnerships around the country uniting parents and other adults, businesses and schools to improve education through adult participation.

The purpose of these initiatives, Mattel said, is not simply to give parents more time with their children. It is a way to get an early crack at training future workers.

"As a business leader, I'm asking you to join me in improving the education of young girls and boys across America. The same children, who in a few short years, will be our employees," Barad said in her letter to other chief executives.

"My plea is simple, yet it is one that can have profound implications on your company's future and on America's competitiveness in an increasingly global marketplace."

Has your company developed an interesting way to help employees balance work life and family life? Write to Balancing Act, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Or send e-mail to nancy.rivera.brooks@latimes.com.

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