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Work-Family Ideas That Break Boundaries

The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power has expanded the scope of corporate work/family initiatives by adding components that range from support groups for fathers to location programs for new mothers.

October 1, 1992
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance
It's lunchtime at the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP), and Patrick Prince is addressing a crowd of male employees. As a counselor for one of the 12 fathers' support groups at DWP, Prince begins the monthly meeting by asking, "Does anyone have questions or comments about last month's meeting?"

The men who are present respond by proudly sharing information about their children, who range in age from eight months to seven years. They offer stories about temper tantrums and teething, about developing trust and learning to talk. Prince responds by sharing his psychosocial insights into parenting, relating the information to the everyday lives of the fathers in the room.

It may be difficult to believe that this is lunchtime conversation, but for dozens of men at DWP, indeed it is. The fathers' support group is just one of the key components of the Fathering Program at DWP. And in turn, the fathering program is just one of the key components of Work Family Services, an innovative, ever-broadening set of programs that address the work-and-family needs of DWP employees.

DWP, the nation's largest public utility, employs 11,000 workers, approximately 76% of whom are males. Employees range from technical specialists, such as engineers, biochemists, physicians, to other workers, such as gardeners, clericals and thousands of field workers who operate steam-generating plants, dig ditches and work on underground equipment. It's a diverse employee mix.

"It's very unusual to have a program, whether you call it a work-and-family program or a fathering program, in which there's a high degree of male participation," says Beverly J. King, director of HR at DWP. "Most people think of work-and-family programs as being dedicated to women. Our program is as successful in addressing the needs of male field workers, who may work on a utility pole in the middle of some street, as it is in helping women who have office jobs."

The genesis of DWP's Work Family Services can be traced to 1983, when the United Way conducted a comprehensive child care study in Los Angeles that included the utility's female employees. The survey yielded two important findings to DWP: 1) The employees had critical child care needs; and 2) Many of DWP's male employees were outraged that they hadn't been included in the survey, because they had child care problems, too.

The company responded with a needs assessment. The assessment revealed that DWP was losing about $1 million in productivity costs because of child care problems. The results, which were measured in terms of absenteeism and benefits, didn't even include tardiness, morale, stress and retention issues. DWP followed up with a feasibility study, which recommended an 18-month pilot program that included:

  • Reduced-cost child care, using centers with which DWP already had relationships
  • Child care for mildly ill children
  • Parent resources, including a resource center that provides parenting classes, an extensive parent resource library and child care counseling
  • Dependent care assistance.

Before reaching the 18-month deadline, the human resources department, with the assistance of an ob-gyn nurse, added an expectant-parent program and a lactation program. The expectant-parent program is a series of seven workshops for both fathers and mothers that covers such topics as how to choose infant care, how to know when the baby is too sick to go to child care and how to make breastfeeding successful. There even are classes designed specifically with the father's participation in mind. The ob-gyn practitioner provides counseling, support and home visits in conjunction with Work Family Services.

The lactation program may be one of the best examples of DWP's commitment to integrate family and health concerns with the workplace. The program allows women who return to work after maternity leave to continue breastfeeding. The company has constructed two lactation rooms in which women can express milk during breaks and lunch. DWP purchased electric pumps, portable breast pumps for women who travel and for those who are working away from the office. The mothers also are provided with ice-pack kits that allow them to store the milk until it can be refrigerated at home. The breast pumps are available to the spouses of DWP's male workers as well.

It may seem unusual for a primarily male company to have a lactation program, but it fits in with the company's goals. "We always pay attention to our business objectives so that management is happy with what we're doing," says Yolie Flores Aguilar, program director of DWP's Work Family Services. The goal in this case is to reduce absenteeism. According to many studies, infants who are breastfed have fewer illnesses. This is precisely why DWP's programs work so well as part of an overall plan.

"The company is moving into a phase in which work-and-family programs are institutionalized, and are becoming integrated with the corporate culture and the corporate strategic plan," King explains. "What we're doing is using the work-and-family programs as a delivery system and as an anchor for our existing strategic plans."

King sees other kinds of corporate culture commitments being delivered through DWP's work and family programs. "We have some core values that we look to our work-and-family programs to help deliver," she says.

For example, the utility is committed to preserving the environment. It uses family opportunities to talk about DWP issues, such as conservation and alternate energy sources. Kite-flying classes are used to talk about safety issues.

At the end of the 18-month trial period, DWP decided to expand its work-and-family services. In addition to the classes, the human resources department developed parenting support groups, in which employees could simply talk with each other about shared concerns.

The groups are headed by facilitators. Some of these people are social workers and child development specialists. The first groups were the more predictable kinds: parenting newborns and children younger than age 5, children ages 6 through 12, and teens. As the popularity of the classes increased, groups for single parents, parents of hyperactive children, and fathers were added.

The expansion of DWP's work-and-family services also included a fathering course, which evolved out of need. The course is an eight-week series led by a psychologist who talks about the seasons of a man's life, changes in the family structure, anticipated developmental stages during pregnancy, what roles men can and do play, breastfeeding, and so on. According to King, the small group of men who took the first fathering course became missionaries and went out and recruited other men. These other men came to King and were articulate about their needs.

"They wanted parenting courses; they wanted support groups; they wanted networks; they wanted greater recognition from a company standpoint about their needs," says King.

In response, DWP created fathering support groups, field trips for fathers and their children (in which they might go to the company's power-generating facility and talk about energy conservation), father's workshops and even a voluntary child-support deduction program. The company also established a father's mentorship program in which fathers who have been through the expectant-parent and lactation programs mentor new dads. Aguilar pairs them off so that men going through the experience of becoming a father for the first time can ask questions and get a dialogue going with experienced dads. There are 30 mentors.

Also notable is DWP's beeper-alert program. Employees are loaned beepers when they have an imminent family emergency. The program started with field workers who were soon to be fathers. Aguilar and King recognized the loss of productivity when these men didn't want to be away from a phone because their wives were expecting to deliver their babies soon. The beepers allow the male employees to be on call, and the company promises them that no matter where they are, they'll be able to get home in a timely manner. The program has been so successful that it has been expanded to include employees who address a wide range of dependent care issues, such as sick children, elderly parents and loved ones who have AIDS.

King says employees love the program. In fact, she says men are taking advantage of every service DWP offers in a significant way.

The breakdown of services with regard to gender is 40% male; 60% female. "Part of our mission is to make men feel comfortable about being part of the family," she explains. "We want them to know that it's OK to talk about their children in the workplace."

As King points out, this is all part of the company's business objectives. "Work-and-family programs can affect the bottom line of your company. Our programs have shown that. The greatest advantage of our fathering program is in turnover." The turnover rate of employees involved in DWP's work-and-family programs is 2%. The turnover among employees who aren't involved in the program is 5%.

DWP's programs also save money in the area of recruitment. "When you're recruiting in such a competitive market with short-supply jobs, work-and-family programs are important," says King. "Because so many companies are in competition for this type of employee, these work-and-family programs can make a difference. These people may not even have children at the time they're considering a job, but even if they don't plan to use the program, they adopt the perception that DWP is a caring company. That's an important edge."

King believes that work-and-family programs are the most underrated type of compensation that's available today. She points out that the cost of work-and-family programs can be extremely nominal. Many are done at lunchtime, require minimum staff and can be integrated with community resources at minimum cost. Because employees want programs like these, there's a $5 value for a 50-cent cost.

"There's a terrific value that can be gained through work-and-family programs by the company as a whole, as well as by HR professionals. These programs can provide a wanted benefit and fulfill a need that hasn't been met in the past," King says.

Personnel Journal, October 1992, Vol. 71, No. 10, pp. 112-117.

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