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Work-life benefits fall victim to slow economy

Arrangements such as telecommuting, 'flex time' and paid leave that allow employees to balance the demands of work and family life are slipping away, worker advocates say.

April 04, 2009|Annys Shin | Shin writes for the Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — With the recession forcing businesses to cut back on workers, employees are increasingly doing all they can to hang on to their jobs, and are forgoing many of the benefits that once allowed them to balance the demands of work and family life.

In good times, many workers seized on the opportunity to use "flex time" and family leave, to telecommute and to take paid sick days.

But, according to workplace consultants, human resources specialists and employees themselves, those days are slipping away. More workers are giving up those arrangements, or resisting asking about them, out of fear that doing so will make them appear less committed to their work and therefore more expendable.

Some worker advocates say they are concerned about the consequences for women.

There's now a "silent fright" among workers, said Joanne Brundage, executive director of Mothers & More, a 21-year-old networking group. She likened the atmosphere to what she saw 20 years ago, when working mothers were advised not to keep pictures of their children in their cubicles.

"That's what it feels like we're returning to. Work as many hours as you possibly can. Make yourself indispensable. Don't ever complain. Don't ever ask for anything," Brundage said. "I'm just horrified we may as well just forget the last 20 years."

For their part, many managers are doing little to calm those concerns, human resource consultants say. They tend to view options such as flex-time and telecommuting as retention tools, experts say, and in recessions, fear of unemployment is just as effective.

There is little data on the recession's effect on so-called work-life initiatives in the private sector. But there is anecdotal evidence that, while few companies are formally suspending programs, employees feel pressure to reconsider their work arrangements.

Madeliene Arcega, an office manager at a New York media company, said she recently had to give up telecommuting. Since returning to full-time work after her maternity leave ended, she had been working two days a week from home.

But as the recession deepened, her company began trimming positions. Arcega, 36, was allowed to stay as long as she took on more responsibilities and came to the office five days a week. A relative is caring for her toddler, but the arrangement is not ideal.

"I was worried the alternative was no job at all," she said.

Teresa Hopke, management director for the national accounting firm RSM McGladrey, said senior leadership at her company remained committed to flexibility, but some middle managers had become more resistant.

"I have heard comments like 'Now is our chance to take back the company,' [and] comments about the fact employees shouldn't feel entitled to ask for flexibility during this time because they should [feel] lucky to have a job," Hopke said.

As a result, top executives at the firm plan to emphasize to employees that alternative work options are still available.

A limited number of employers have turned to flex-time and telecommuting to contain costs. Nortel Networks Corp., for example, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January, is encouraging employees to work remotely to cut real estate expenses, spokesman Jay Barta said.

Other firms such as Citigroup Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., which have also had layoffs, are spending the same or less on work-life initiatives than they were a year ago, but have managed to maintain or increase them.

These companies, however, are the exception, human resource specialists said.

"Most employers, when it comes to any initiative in human resources, have sort of hunkered down," said Paul Rupert, president of Rupert and Co., who advises companies on work-life initiatives. "They're almost paralyzed because they don't know what's happening."

Surveys show that, rather than granting employees flexibility to save costs, employers are more likely to freeze salaries, slash the travel budget or resort to layoffs.

Work-life balance policies fall into the category of "nice to have," said Deborah Keary, a director at the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. "Should we do telecommuting? They don't care. They're worried about where are they going to get payroll next week."

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