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"The Childless Feel Left Out When Parents Get a Lift"
December 1, 1996
Scott Wenzel considers himself very much a family man. So why isn't he getting along with today's family-friendly workplace?
For starters, it annoys him that what he would pay for health insurance to cover him and his wife subsidizes coverage for married co-workers with children. And with his office cubicle just 50 yards from an on-site day-care center, he is tired of having his phone calls interrupted by squealing toddlers and the clickety-clack of strollers rolling down the hall.
But it was recently, when he took a vacation day after his cat was hit by a car - and he was criticized for it - that he really became upset.
"If I had been staying home because I had a child with even a minor illness, people would have thought nothing of it," said Wenzel, 34, a computer systems specialist with the Social Security Administration in Baltimore. "But the things that matter in my personal life don't cut it in today's work environment. The attitude is `kids are a good excuse; yours is a bogus one.'"
As employers keep adding benefits like flexible working hours and day-care subsidies, and as managers bend work rules to make life easier for working parents, discontent is growing.
Many single and childless employees say they are getting short shrift on benefits. Although some companies have addressed the issue by offering cafeteria plans, which give employees a set amount of money to spend on a choice of benefits, many employees say those plans solve only part of the problem.
They are tired of working longer hours, traveling more or otherwise picking up the slack for colleagues with family obligations. In a 1995 survey of 129 executives by the Conference Board, nearly half the respondents said parents received more support from their companies than nonparents did.
In April, 80 percent of employers and employees surveyed by Personnel Journal, a trade magazine, said single workers without children carried more of the burden at work than their married colleagues who had children, but their needs got less attention.
J. Walker Smith, a managing partner at Yankelovich Partners, a market research firm in Norwalk, Conn., sees it as both a generational conflict and a struggle between those who have children and those who don't.
Baby boomers are searching for balance between work and family life, he said, and the generation coming up behind them is less willing to sacrifice their personal lives for their jobs in an era of waning corporate loyalty. Many haven't accepted the notion that they must pay their dues.
"It's not surprising this antagonism has spilled over into the workplace,'' he said.
No one is suggesting that the answer is to eliminate family benefits, but some parents still worry. Many of them struggle in jobs where they get no breaks, and many work as hard or harder than colleagues.
"I really worry about the backlash; I'd hate to see work family benefits disappear," said Leslie Smith, associate director of the National Association for Female Executives and mother of a 4-year-old girl. "There are women out there who are barely holding on, trying to juggle work and home. It's tough."
But with two-thirds of the work force now raising children under 18, more employers are being forced to address the issue.
Lisa Barnes, a 38-year-old customer service representative for Xerox in St. Petersburg, Fla., remembers meetings two years ago at which co-workers complained that parents like her received day-care assistance, while others got nothing. "It was a constant topic of conversation," she said.
Today, Xerox offers employees as much as $2,000 a year, to a lifetime amount of $10,000, for expenses like day care or care for a parent. Employees can also receive the $2,000 when they buy a first home.
"There's tension at times on both sides," said Patricia Nazemeth, director of human resources at Xerox. "But we tried to reinforce the message that we're taking everyone's needs into account."
Other big companies have taken similar measures. Marriott International renamed its work-family unit the work-life department and recently added a telephone help line to give employees advice about child care, elder care, debt management, home remodeling and buying a car.
At Aetna Inc., employees who want flexible hours must demonstrate that their request makes business sense. Whether they have children is not a consideration.
Michelle Carpenter, director of work-life strategies at Aetna, acknowledges that some employees complain that their supervisors give them more work than co-workers who are parents. "I think sometimes it comes more down to management than the benefits we offer," she said.
Ms. Barnes, the Xerox service representative, continues to feel tension when the weekly schedule comes out. Sometimes there is a perception, she said, "that the people who get the flexible hours are the ones with children."
Not everyone is bothered by this. When Lisa Boyette worked in human resources at the Fluor Corp. in Irvine, Calif., she didn't mind that the flex-time rules were bent for co-workers with children because she enjoyed her job and was willing to put in the hours.
At Southwest Airlines in Dallas, Libby Sartrain, the personnel manager, notes that many single employees with less seniority say they pick up shifts from colleagues with family responsibilities, both to make more money and to get ahead.
But others feel there are limits, even to paying dues. Dan Morrisey, 27, said he left a job with an architectural firm in Chicago in part because he became tired of finishing work for a colleague who was always leaving early for his child's soccer games or doctor's appointments.
His co-worker was also regularly excused from staff meetings because of his son's day-care schedule.
"I don't mind putting in the time to get ahead," Morrissey said. "But when other people don't have to play by the same rules and they're advancing at the same pace, it can get demoralizing."
Samuel Culbert, a clinical psychologist and management professor at the business school of the University of California at Los Angeles, said many of his students had similar attitudes. He expects to see more companies and employees confronting these issues.
"Right now, saying you have to leave early to attend a Lamaze class or soccer game is politically correct," he said. But leaving early to meet a friend or go work out is not, he said, although these activities may be just as important to your mental health.
He said employees should help educate their bosses and make sure their own needs are met.
Eva Segovia, an anesthesiologist in Laguna Beach, Calif., discovered this a few years ago. At a previous job, she was often asked to work for colleagues who had children. She agreed at first because she wanted to help. Then she started feeling taken advantage of.
"Now I just say no,'' she said. "I have a life, too."
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