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By Pamela Mendels
JANUARY 31, 2000

Simple Benefits Go Far in Balancing Work and Family

So why don't more small companies adopt them?


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I organized my own Take Your Daughter to Work Day recently. It wasn't one of those corporate events to inspire her to be all she can be. You see, my daughter was sick — and I'm self-employed. Actually, on the morning in question, Sara, a first-grader, was finally fever-free, but the pediatrician wanted her away from her schoolmates for another 24 hours.

Easy for him to say. My lawyer husband was scheduled to appear in court. I was scheduled to appear at a graduate-school seminar that I teach once a week. Neither babysitters, neighbors, nor Grandma were available. First, I panicked. Then I did what I had to do. I bundled up Sara, loaded her backpack with crayons and books, and off we went to my job.

Thankfully, it all worked: My students were more than tolerant. Sara rose to the occasion. Pacified with a cup of hot chocolate and lots of drawing paper, she amused herself quietly. I thought about that incident — and countless other work-family crises I've survived — last week, when I came across a set of little-publicized statistics from the Boston College Center for Work & Family. The numbers come from research, which the center is compiling into a report on small businesses and how they handle their employees. The study surveyed 188 companies with less than 50 employees about a number of work and family matters.

The study, conducted two years ago, isn't scientific — yet as a slice of small-business life, it offers a number of insights, says Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, an assistant professor at Boston College's Graduate School of Social Work and the principal investigator for the study. I agree. Some of its points conjure up familiar scenarios like my recent adventure with Sara.

The study found that the small businesses are very much affected by their employees' personal obligations. Here's a revealing statistic. The businesses reported on average 1.4 instances a week in which employees were late or absent because they had to care for a family member. More surprising — given the opportunity entrepreneurs have to invent their own work environments — the small businesses surveyed had failed to take some simple steps to help employees reconcile work-family conflicts. Only about 20% of the respondents allowed anyone to work at home. That's an obvious measure that nearly 90% of larger employers have embraced, a 1998 study by the Families and Work Institute shows.

Moreover, only about 11% of the companies had set up "dependent-care accounts," which allow employees to shelter up to $5,000 of their annual wages from taxes if the money is spent for family-care expenses. Child-care expenses paid with pretax dollars can be up to 30% cheaper, depending on your tax bracket. That's a huge savings, especially for small-business employees who tend to earn less and have fewer and less generous benefits than people who work for large companies. The accounts are easy to set up, says Elizabeth D. Bahnsen, a benefits expert at the Society for Human Resource Management. They take some administration, but companies can save social security and other employment taxes on the money workers set aside.

Are entrepreneurs really so obtuse? Don't they realize what a vital recruiting tool such practices are in this competitive labor market? I think they do. Nearly 85% said it's important for the boss to help employees balance their work and home lives. So what accounts for this gap between intentions and reality?

The answer is complicated, says Pitt-Catsouphes. For one thing, she notes, a number of the small businesses surveyed were retailers, and store owners would doubtless find it a bit impractical to establish work-at-home policies for sales clerks. The bigger problem, she said, is that entrepreneurs are victims of the same time crunch that their workers face — but to a greater degree. They must do or at least manage everything — from ordering supplies to planning the marketing strategy. After all, their most important task is to keep an emerging business afloat. And just allowing employees to work at home requires crafting an officewide policy. "By the time they get around to dependent-care accounts, it can feel like a detail," she said. It's not. Few of an entrepreneur's tasks are as important as hiring and keeping good people.

Entrepreneurs may get that "nothing I do is ever enough" feeling from Pitt-Catsouphes research. Understandably. Maybe they can extract a more positive message: Work-family conflicts will pull employees away from their work willy-nilly. And companies will have to accommodate them — usually on no notice. The extra effort to help people manage needs that really aren't emergencies will probably pay for itself. It's a medical fact that sniffles aren't confined to the children whose parents enjoy generous, Fortune 500-company benefits.

Pamela Mendels is freelance writer based in New York City. She wrote about small business and had a workplace advice column at Newsday, and has written about workplace matters for Business Week, Working Woman, and the Web site iGuide.


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