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Single and childless workers say they're not getting fair share of benefits

Friday, June 19, 1998

By Joyce Gannon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Paragon Solutions Inc., a Carnegie software business, distributes a survey to employees once a year on benefits and workplace issues. This year, a handful of the company's single and childless employees asked to swap part of their family medical coverage for cash or more paid time off.

    Related article:

Perking up the work force


Paragon co-founder Debbie Ferlic said she's not sure if she'll go along, but she agreed to at least consider the idea.

Paragon is only five years old and has only 32 employees, but it's taking steps to confront what benefits experts say is a looming problem for companies of all sizes: perks for single and childless workers.

"There's a brand new uprising nationally. ... Single employees feel discriminated against because they can't take advantage of benefits created for the family," said Jane Yallum, founder of a Glenshaw consulting firm that tries to help business improve the balance between work and life outside work.

Yallum is spearheading a conference on Tuesday called "Striking a Balance," which includes a session on how "family-friendly" benefits -- like flex-time for working parents and day care subsidies -- can result in a divided workforce. The day-long conference, targeted for human resource and personnel managers, will be held at the Sheraton Hotel Station Square.

Yallum, 36, started her business largely to accommodate her own need to balance a career with raising two children.

But companies need to realize the balancing act goes beyond being a parent, she said.

Some workers have elderly parents or other family members to care for; they may want to coach Little League teams; or they may want to work flexible hours to schedule workouts at the gym.

"What's happening out there now is that single people are feeling they're getting the shaft because benefits are always for the family," said Jeff Guiler, assistant professor of management at Robert Morris College.

In a room with dim lights and soft music, Heinz employee Nikki Williams receives a massage from Deborah Tuminello at Heinz's North Side plant. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

A married but childless public relations worker, who asked not to be named, says that over the years he's often observed colleagues who leave the office early to pick up children at day care or who stay home because a child was sick or babysitting arrangements fell through.

Bosses never asked the working parents to make up the time, he said. But when he himself asked for a couple hours off for a dental emergency, for example, it was granted with the provision he put in the lost hours another time. "I think there's a sort of looking aside by employers when it comes to people with kids," he said.

Even if companies aren't consciously favoring working parents, the perception is widespread.

A report issued last year by The Conference Board said more than 40 percent of executives surveyed said their childless workers felt they were subsidizing health care and other perks for their co-workers who were parents. And 43 percent of the executives said their companies weren't adequately addressing the needs of childless employees.

Such concerns are bound to cause friction as never-marrieds, divorced people and childless couples enter the workforce in increasing numbers.

By 2010, the number of childless couples in the United States is expected to increase by 50 percent. After 2005, single and married couple households with no children are expected to become the most common types of households in the country, according to the Census Bureau.

"'Lifestyle friendly' instead of 'family-friendly.' That's the term we're starting to hear in the benefits industry," said Barry Lawrence, spokesman for the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. "More and more workers entering the workforce are single or childless. So we have to start thinking about this stuff."

Some Pittsburgh firms have already tackled the issue.

Based on studies it conducted in 1993 of its headquarters and administrative personnel -- about 2,800 employees -- Consolidated Natural Gas Co. instituted a flexible benefits program that allows employees to pick from three levels of medical coverage and a list of other benefits, ranging from extra vacation days to enhanced disability insurance.

A single employee who doesn't want the top level of full medical coverage, for instance, can trade down for single coverage and pick up a couple of extra vacation days or a cash payment of $75 per month.

"The workforce as a whole made it pretty clear they needed flexibility," said Andy Haas, CNG's acting vice president, corporate human resources. "People can pick their options based on their own individual circumstances."

This year CNG added investment counseling to the mix of options.

"We revisited (the 1993 survey) to see what might be useful that we didn't include the first time," said Haas.

Creative perks for single and childless workers might include financial assistance on house downpayments, subsidies to purchase home computers, group discounts on home and auto insurance, or on-site dry cleaning and concierge services at the workplace, said Geri Recht, a benefits consultant for Towers Perrin.

Concierges like those in USX Tower, CNG Tower and the Koppers Building order theater tickets, book restaurant reservations, wrap gifts and coordinate events for busy employees.

"Certainly yuppies without children are going to the theater and buying flowers so this kind of service means they don't have to leave work to go out and do these things," said Recht.

The cost of the concierge service is split between the building owner and the tenants, said MaryLyn McGinn, executive vice president for The Galbreath Co., which manages USX Tower and CNG Tower.

Health and wellness programs also go a long way toward satisfying lots of workers -- not just parents, said Recht.

Many companies offer discounts on health club memberships, she said. But a newer idea -- especially among high-tech firms -- is to cater office meetings with juice bars and snacks like carrots and celery instead of coffee and doughnuts.

"If we can make that kind of benefit part of the company culture, an employee can go home and feel better about work because they ate the celery instead of the cookies," said Recht.

For employees at Heinz USA, the company subsidizes half the cost of two massage therapy sessions a month, said spokeswoman Deb Magness. The company also offers on-site wellness programs like yoga, Heinz's own Weight Watchers classes and smoking cessation classes.

By offering benefits not specifically tailored for working parents, companies in return get better employee morale, fewer unscheduled absences and lower health care costs, Recht said.

"The question is always, 'How can we get employees to come to work and be productive at work?' The key here really is to get to know your employees and figure out what they want."

Recht, a mother of two young children, has a flex-time schedule that allows her to work three days in the office and one at home.

Some of her colleagues expressed concern when she started the flex schedule, she admitted. "Then they realized I'm not getting paid 100 percent ... It's a trade-off."

Companies in areas populated by larger numbers of singles and dual-income couples with no children are more likely to offer flex benefit packages, said Denise Rousseau, professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie-Mellon University.

"Firms get into a little trouble politically with family-friendly policies when lots of employees don't have kids," Rousseau said.

Consider a professional accounting firm like Deloitte & Touche LLP that expects its employees to spend weeks at a time on the road.

"Most people there won't have four kids because it's a young person's burnout job," said Rousseau.

In fact, the median age at Deloitte's Pittsburgh office falls somewhere in the late 20s to early 30s, said Aaron Herbick, director of human resources. The firm employs 580 here.

Its benefits package, Herbick said, is designed to address issues for all age groups, including the senior partners.

"We emphasize flexibility in balancing people's work and personal lives. We don't focus on either the family or the individual; we focus on benefits that attempt to give people flexibility no matter what their situation is."

Deloitte's Flex-Work Arrangement -- which includes compressed work weeks, reduced schedules and some telecommuting -- isn't restricted to working parents.

The flex program has helped reduce turnover in Deloitte's Pittsburgh office to 15 percent annually compared with an industry average of 20 percent, Herbick said.

To help workers -- married, single, parents and childless -- balance issues in and out of the office, Deloitte has what it calls a Life Works program that offers free advice on topics like choosing a doctor, lawyer or financial planner; creating a will; organizing your time and priorities; and planning advanced education.

Like Deloitte, Heinz USA contends it doesn't segregate employees by marital or parental status.

It offers a range of benefits open to all employees, including flex-time, job sharing and tuition reimbursement and on-site personal services like dry cleaning and jewelry repair.

But it has introduced at least one benefit designed specifically for childless or single workers who would like to have children, Magness said -- reimbursement for adoption expenses like travel and medical exams.

"Our universe is not based on marital or family status," said Magness. "The question is what is the benefit or service that is needed, required or right for our employees?"

For information on the Striking a Balance conference, call 412-492-1699.

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