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Perking Up Pooped-Out Workers

Companies are using novel ideas--from take-home gourmet meals to retail discounts--to ease workplace overload. The goal: to attract good people and keep them on the job.


Workers have always looked to their employers for their bread and butter.

Now they're turning to them for their chipotle-grilled salmon, their Parmesan chicken breast, their breakfast quiches and even their "homemade" fudge.

Chef-prepared take-home meals, such as those J.C. Penney offers workers at its Plano, Texas, headquarters, are the newest kind of perk being offered in corporate America. They are part of a proliferation of free or subsidized employer-proffered services designed to help ease the lives of time-strapped, stressed-out workers.

And they are being offered to more and more employees, and not just the elite. Now, at banks and tech firms, retailers and insurance companies, for mail-room clerks and VIPs alike, their employers will arrange to pay the bills, walk the dog, clean clothes, plan honeymoons, sue the neighbors, protect teens from online predators, send Mom flowers on her birthday, pick a nursing home for Dad, and even offer advice on what kind of birth control to use.

Companies across the country--America Online, Calvert Group, Marriott International, Cigna, Deloitte & Touche, Texas Instruments, Charles Schwab and many others--have developed a bevy of programs to deal with worker overload.

In general, the companies pay for the concierge and referral services and employees pay for the products, often at discounted prices. Some firms are pooling resources so they can offer perks they can't afford on their own.

The goal of these programs--partly benevolent and partly pragmatic--is to get people on the job and keep them there. It's not surprising in a hyper-competitive, global, 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week economy, where getting a product to market days before an industry rival can mean life or liquidation for a company.

"We need to make them come and make it feasible to stay without working themselves into the ground," said Betty Purkey, manager of work-life programs at Dallas-based Texas Instruments. Lifestyle-friendly programs there include an online parents network where workers can get child-rearing advice, flexible scheduling, breast-feeding rooms, summer camps for children, a concierge to run errands and an elder-care referral service.

"We're realizing it's not smart to burn people out," Purkey said. "It doesn't get you anything long term--even if it gets you something short term."

Broad economic forces form the backdrop here. With unemployment at a 30-year low and labor-participation rates at record highs, there are fewer people left to tend to matters of the hearth. And Americans now work the longest hours--and have the highest productivity--of any industrialized nation in the world, according to a recent study by the International Labour Organization.

In such times, personnel executives are working hard to add to their rosters of creative job perks.

The accounting firm Deloitte & Touche, for example, offers its 800 Washington-area employees an opportunity to buy computer products online at discount prices. It also provides them with a loan assistance program that frees them from lenders' red tape and even coaches them how to better parent a poorly motivated teenager.

Three months ago, rival accounting firm Ernst & Young, which had employed 30 concierges around the country, expanded that service to its 7,500 consultants nationwide.

The consultants and their spouses have access to a toll-free number where workers are on call 12 hours a day to buy tickets for them, arrange for housecleaning or pet care, or plan and book a family reunion. Ernst & Young's Denise Hoffman said the program has been so popular that the company is considering expanding it to the entire work force.

This surge of cradle-to-grave services is garnering praise as a sanity-saver for legions of workers. At the same time, some experts say it raises troubling questions about the dark side of the American work ethic.

"The way people work has made them end up with more pressured lives," said Ellen Galinsky, director of the Families and Work Institute, which researches work patterns. "Work creates the problem. Then work creates the solution, rather than dealing with the problem."

Robert Drago, a professor of labor studies at Pennsylvania State University, takes a similar view. "Employees are being asked to handle work-family conflict by having their families fade into the background," he said. "Firms are providing services that allow workers to work harder and longer so their productivity will continue to rise. The downside is that people are spending less time dealing with family problems. They are giving up control over their family life and letting other people make their decisions."

It's a Faustian bargain that workers seem eager to accept. Faye Rainey, 39, a software engineer at Texas Instruments and the mother of a 5-year-old son, Jelani, and a 3-year-old daughter, Shani, said the fast pace of the semiconductor industry sometimes stretches her nine-hour workdays to 14 hours, particularly when new products are being tested.

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