Employee Action Prompts Management To Respond to Work-and-family Needs

February 1, 1993
Mary Larson is an administrative assistant, and Kim Johnson is a paralegal, at Weyerhaeuser Co. in Federal Way, Washington. Five years ago, both had toddlers, full-time careers and the desire to hang up the supermom cape. "As a single mom, I found it difficult to balance the issues involved with work and family life on my own," says Larson. "I really needed Weyerhaeuser to give me some of the same support I had shown them by being a hardworking employee."

When Larson and Johnson heard through the grapevine that management didn't think that enough employees had children to warrant any sort of child care program, they became concerned. They knew that this was an inaccurate perception. The women gathered facts through an employee survey, to show management that there really was a need for family support. In the process, management came to view Larson and Johnson as employees having a legitimate cause. This led to the forging of a child care policy at Weyerhaeuser in 1987.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Johnson and Larson represent the burgeoning norm: In 59% of married-couple families, both spouses currently are employed. In Washington state alone, more than 58% of children younger than nine years have mothers in the work force. By the end of this decade, 80% of all mothers nationwide will work outside the home during some portion of their child-rearing years.

Although work-and-family programs often are relatively small-budget items when compared with health care, organizations are hesitant to become involved. Leslie Faught is president of Portland, Oregon-based Working Solutions Inc., which provides dependent-care consulting to Weyerhaeuser and other major corporations nationwide.

According to Faught, it isn't that management doesn't care about child- and elder-care issues. The problem is that management often is unaware of how much these issues can impact employees and the bottom line.

A recent report by the Child Care Action Campaign presents one example. (The Child Care Action Campaign is based in New York City and works to establish a national system of affordable, quality child care using public and private resources.) The report states that businesses lose $3 billion annually as a result of child-care-related absences alone.

A recent study of approximately 8,000 employees in Portland, Oregon, revealed that women who have children who are below the age of 18 miss 2.3 days more of work each year than women who don't have children. Men who have young children miss two days more of work each year than men who don't have young children.

In addition, mothers and fathers have revealed that they experience anxiety on the job about family matters. The book, The Work and Family Revolution: How Companies Can Keep Employees Happy and Business Profitable, reports that 77% of women and 73% of men admit that they have dealt with family-related issues during work hours. Family-related stress can result in unproductive behavior, such as late arrival, early departure, distraction and an unusual amount of time spent on personal calls.

Because so many employees who have children experience these problems firsthand, it's becoming more common for management to hear about parents' concerns. It's also more common for the employees to initiate these child care programs.

"The trickle-up theory often applies to establishing work-and-family policies," says Faught. "The wheels of progress often become clogged with red tape at the management level. The enthusiasm that grass-roots initiatives lend, however, can keep the process moving smoothly," she says.

That's exactly what has happened at Weyerhaeuser's corporate headquarters. "We conducted a survey of child care support services back in the early '80s," says Nancy Oltman, EEO manager at Weyerhaeuser.

"We looked into setting up an internal resource-and-referral service to meet a broad range of work-and-family issues, but at that time, the need didn't justify the cost. We had only limited options because there were no dependent-care-benefits consultants at the time," Oltman says.

The survey had a 40% response rate.
Fast-forward to 1987. Johnson and Larson were down in the trenches and knew that their fellow employees shared their concerns about child care. But how to prove it to management was the question. They designed a comprehensive survey of child care needs, sent it to approximately 3,000 employees, compiled the data and presented it to top management.

Although Weyerhaeuser provided copying and distribution services, Johnson and Larson ended up spending about 40 hours of their own time designing and writing the survey, and compiling the results. The impressive response rate—40%—testified to the importance of the child care issue to women and men at the company.

"Although the survey wasn't designed and carried out scientifically, it still carried enough weight to prove what we already suspected—that the company needed to reevaluate its child care policies," says Oltman.

According to Johnson, the findings of the survey that were most surprising to management were the high cost of day care and the number of employees who wanted something done about child care. For the Weyerhaeuser employees who responded to the 1987 survey, the average cost of full-time day care was $247 per month per child. Today, that figure has more than doubled in communities in which Weyerhaeuser operates and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

"Mary and I weren't surprised because we both had children, but management had no idea," says Johnson. "We had employees at every level tell us that they were willing to give up such benefits as dental insurance, vacations and the exercise club to receive child care support."

According to Faught, much of the success of a grass-roots effort depends on the company culture. "Many companies only now are beginning to learn the value of employee empowerment. Weyerhaeuser's human resources managers were visionary in that they appreciated employee-led efforts early," she explains.

Oltman confirms this fact. Several different managers at different times easily could have squelched Johnson and Larson's initiative.

One important reason Johnson and Larson's proposal took root was that it coincided with a study of child care among Northwest employers. The company's human resources department was helping update the study.

"When Kim and Mary came forward with their survey idea, it was timely and a good fit," Oltman points out. "What we did could have been just another corporate report, but they really brought a sense of urgency to it. They demanded action."

A child-care task force was formed.
As a result of the data that Johnson and Larson presented to senior management in late 1987, Weyerhaeuser created the Childcare Task Force to look into what the company and employee needs were and to try to find the answers. Instead of leaving the responsibility to the human resources department, a group of employees had responsibility for analyzing the issues.

The reason? A broad cross-section of employees often provides better solutions and the clout necessary to implement change throughout the company. A report on task forces conducted by the Conference Board in New York City recommends that managers ask leaders from various departments—community and government affairs, training and development, corporate research, legal, accounting and human resources—to lend their expertise to the cause.

Initially, there were five women on the committee. That number of committee members has grown in the past three years and now includes two men.

Oltman originally headed the Childcare Task Force, but the current EEO manager now has that responsibility. Other members include several representatives from human resources, the manager of the recreation department, the manager of the EAP department, a manager from corporate contributions, and Johnson and Larson.

Generally, a task force meets weekly, biweekly or monthly for one year and has the goal of designing a plan of action. Originally, Weyerhaeuser's committee met twice a month, but that has tapered off in the past year to a quarterly meeting to review the services that already are in place.

Weyerhaeuser's committee is atypical, in that it now has been in place for almost five years. "We feel that it's important to keep up with the changing needs of our organization and evaluate how our plan is being carried out," Johnson explains.

Although the committee enjoys a certain autonomy, it seems to have more power working with management than it would as a separate entity because it has management's support. "We meet on company time and have the strong backing of senior management," says Johnson.

"This committee isn't just an advisory committee to the human resources department but is a part of the policy-making process. Our recommendations are taken seriously," Johnson says.

Originally, the Weyerhaeuser task force examined various child care options. It tried to match the company objectives with employee needs. The company objectives that were identified by the committee were:

  • Position the company as a progressive employer that can attract, motivate and retain the dual-career work force

  • Assist the most employees possible, equitably and within the limited budget available for benefit enhancements

  • Provide assistance that's consistent with prudent business practices and that doesn't involve the organization in the day-to-day management of the child care program.

The survey identified such employee child care concerns as: cost, quality, supply, access, advice and flexibility. Employees responded positively to various proposed programs, such as:

  • Employer-sponsored child care centers (16%)
  • Voucher plans to subsidize childcare (14%)
  • Information-and-referral services (13%)
  • Discount programs (12%)
  • Comprehensive cafeteria plans (12%)
  • Flexible-spending accounts (10%)
  • Reimbursement plans (8%).

According to Johnson, employer-sponsored child care centers or on-site day care were investigated, but because of the abundance of facilities close to corporate headquarters, that option was dismissed. Two other employee preferences—subsidized voucher plans and employee-discount programs at day care centers near the corporation—were rejected because they were found to be too costly.

The committee interviewed managers at other companies that faced similar child care issues and had extensive conversations with Working Solutions. They came to the conclusion that the answer to many of Weyerhaeuser's child care problems would be a resource-and-referral service.

Resource-and-referral programs supply data.
Resource-and-referral programs were attractive to Weyerhaeuser because of the dual function they serve: assisting employees with problems, and supplying the company with data about employee needs. At the time Weyerhaeuser decided to contract with a resource-and-referral service, there were only two dependent-care consultants who offered the program in Washington state. Several other contenders have sprung up during the past few years.

At one time, Weyerhaeuser had tried to establish an employee-run, internal resource-and-referral service. Johnson says that this effort failed because of a lack of organization. Although Weyerhaeuser's data base was growing by word-of-mouth—providing information about which of the services employees had used and liked—Working Solutions already had a complete data base in place.

Here's how the system works: 24 hours a day, seven days a week, employees can call Working Solutions toll-free. A child care specialist will assess their situation. That might mean something as basic, yet crucial, as finding an affordable day care provider in the employee's community. Working Solutions has a data base of more than 12,000 independent child care services and access to a network of thousands more. The service screens the providers for availability and other criteria specified by the employee, and identifies three choices to investigate in the employee's area.

During that initial assessment, Working Solutions also might uncover family-related stresses that the caller may not have recognized. These stresses can come from many sources, including: divorce, sibling rivalry, behavior or learning disorders in school, peer pressure on teens, self-esteem problems, and the everyday routine of getting the kids off to school and the parents off to work without having everybody go crazy.

Whatever problems turn up, the service guides employees into taking positive action. Instead of giving advice, the consultants offer alternatives suitable for the problems at hand. A simple information sheet may be all that's needed.

If the situation calls for in-depth legal or psychological counseling, the consultant refers the employee to the appropriate resources. The goal of the program is to give the employees some appropriate choices, not to make their decisions for them.

"People will indicate one thing on a survey, but their problem when they actually pick up the phone because of a child care need is what's really important to us," says Oltman. Working Solutions compiles quarterly reports on the exact nature of those needs, while maintaining employee confidentiality.

Each report specifies the number of calls, nature of requests, demographics of employees calling and other pertinent statistical information. As a result, Weyerhaeuser now has trend data on its employees' actual needs. According to Oltman, any decisions concerning work-and-family benefits will include careful consideration of the data that Working Solutions provides.

With a resource-and-referral service successfully in place, the task force looked for ways to help parents with the financial burden of child care. They found that dependent-care spending accounts deliver value to employees (in the form of tax savings) at only a small administration cost to the company.

The dependent-care spending account has been available companywide since January 1991. All of Weyerhaeuser's 40,000 salaried employees nationwide have access to this program.

In the first year of the program, enrollment was 1.8%, compared with the national average for mature plans of 3%. During 1992, however, its enrollment increased to 2.2%.

According to Oltman, Weyerhaeuser's Childcare Task Force is at an important juncture now. The task force is evolving from an ad hoc group that meets quarterly to discuss the implications of Working Solutions' utilization reports into a more formal force that needs to be reckoned with. Says Oltman, "We need to concentrate on our ongoing purpose—expanding the goals and procedures of the task force."

The next step includes defining a long-term mission for dependent care and establishing more reliable processes for meeting and functioning. "We're trying to turn this into a long-term working committee that has a rotating membership, to get input from all areas of the company," says Johnson. Other options include the formation of a permanent work-and-family department within the company or expanding the employee family assistance program to include a child care contingency.

Looking back, Johnson and Larson both admit that they feared for their jobs when they first made the decision to challenge Weyerhaeuser's child care policy. The solid evidence of an employee data base, however, buttressed their confidence—as well as their cause. "We didn't know how management was going to react, but everyone was supportive," says Larson.

Because employees are the key customers in providing a benefits program, their input is essential in deciding which child care services to implement, according to Steven Hill, senior vice president of human resources at Weyerhaeuser. "I have two children, so believe me, I've given considerable thought to child care issues," adds Hill. "The company had been struggling for years with tackling a child care policy that would cover the varied needs of our employees. Kim and Mary's input provided a welcome piece of the puzzle."

Personnel Journal, February 1993, Vol. 72, No. 2, pp. 96-107.