It’s a Family Affair: When both spouses are working

What goes on behind closed doors in the homes of America’s workforce may be a private affair, but it’s having a major impact on the nation’s employers.

When his daughter became seriously ill last summer, Steve Sanders turned down a major job promotion so he could be by her side. It was a move that cost him thousands in lost perks and wages. There’s no question Sanders’ presence there was warranted; any caring parent would have done the same. But in a larger sense, his decision to let his career take a back seat mirrors an emerging trend in corporate America today – that of putting the family first.

Part of what’s driving this trend is simply a desire to spend more time with the family. A recent study by the Merck Family Fund shows that American workers are “growing tired of the battle for the almighty dollar.” Seventy percent say they want more balance between home and work, and are willing to earn less in order to get it.

An even stronger catalyst, however, is that employees today have little choice but to focus on the family. Workers juggling the demands of two-income households, aging parents, and young children have precious little time or patience to deal with anything else – and increasingly that includes dealing with a relocation. In fact, more and more employees today cite family issues as their primary reason for turning down a move.

At a time when business opportunities may be around the corner or around the world, companies need employees who are willing and able to move. Wise employers are realizing that the well-being of their employees’ families is far more than just a “soft” issue, it has a direct impact on their bottom line.

When both spouses are working

Between 1979 and 1992, the number of women in the workforce grew twice as fast as the number of men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 1994, more than half the 54 million married couples in the US had both partners in the workforce.

A joint study by the University of Tennessee and the Right Associates reveals some interesting facts about these couples. The majority are well educated; seventy percent of couples with two college graduates also have two working spouses. Not only are these couples more likely to work, they earn more while working. They are also the most likely candidates for relocation.

But the marriage of relocation and two-income families is hardly one of wedded bliss. Forty-two percent of dual-career employees who relocated said they experienced a significant drop in their standard of living following the move. Spouses who were able to find work in the new location earned considerably less than in their previous positions. And only 20 percent received any job-finding assistance from their spouses’ employers.

Daycare dilemmas

As the number of dual-income couples continues to increase, so does the demand for child care. More than half of women with children under the age of six now work outside the home, according to the Labor Department. By the end of the century, women will comprise approximately two-thirds of new workers, and the majority (75 percent) will become pregnant during their working years.

Fifty-one percent of the companies responding to the Employee Relocation Council’s 1995 Relocation Trends Survey say their employees have expressed concern about the availability of suitable childcare in the new location. And rightfully so. Quality daycare is in scarce supply in this country, and those fortunate enough to find it also find it has a hefty price tag. Daycare for two children runs as high as $7,800 a year, according to the US Census Bureau, and it can cost twice that in locations such as Boston and New York.

But for the relocating family with children, finding daycare is only half the problem. Children whose families relocate often are at greater risk for emotional, behavioral and school problems than children whose families have never moved, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Those who have moved three or more times have 60 percent greater odds of repeating a grade, and 80 percent greater odds of being expelled or suspended.

Today, more than a third of American children have moved once or twice, and 39 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 17 have relocated three or more times during their lifetime.

Blessed are the caregivers . . .

On the other end of the spectrum, baby boomers’ parents are getting older – and living longer – escalating the need for quality eldercare. A study by Duke University and the University of Denmark found that American men who turned 80 in 1987 were expected to live another seven years. Women’s life expectancies were even longer.

Due to rising health costs, nearly eight in ten disabled elderly people now live outside health care institutions, according to American Demographics magazine. The majority rely entirely on their spouses and children for care, a trend that promises to continue. Research from the Families and Work Institute shows that forty percent of workers expect to be responsible for their aging parents within the next five years. In most cases, those providing the care will be women.

Dual-income couples who have elderly parents residing with them will find relocation particularly difficult to manage, financially and otherwise. Nine out of ten women surveyed by the Whirlpool Foundation and the Families Institute of New York said they are responsible for the family’s caregiving. Of these, fifty-five percent also contribute at least half the family’s income.

Not surprisingly, 63 percent of the companies responding to E-R-C’s 1995 study said the availability of eldercare is a concern for their relocating employees. Almost half said employees are concerned about the quality and affordability of elder care in the new location, and 56 percent said employees worry about the impact of moving an elderly relative away from a familiar network of family and friends.

Of the employees who expressed eldercare concerns, three fourths said these concerns were a “somewhat” or “very important” factor in their decision to relocate. Fifty-nine percent of responding companies said such concerns also play an important role in the family’s ability to adjust in the new location.

Meeting the challenge

These are hard times for employers, who must somehow keep their employees mobile without increasing corporate costs. But in the innovative tradition of America, they are finding new ways to meet the challenge.

As part of a progressive spouse assistance program launched last January, Dow Chemical Company introduced the Entrepreneurial Feature for self-employed partners. Within certain guidelines, Dow pays for the partner to establish a new business in the destination location, including start-up costs and lost income.

Boston-based Work/Family Directions, one of the nation’s largest providers of resource and referral services, saw its client list for eldercare services grow from one company covering 200,000 employees in 1988 to 60 clients and over 2 million employees today.

A survey of its clients also revealed a significant increase over the last several years in the number companies providing formal flexibility policies. Such policies offer employees a number of options for balancing work and home, including part-time jobs, flextime, job-sharing, and telecommuting. The study also noted a sizable increase in the number of on-site and near-site childcare centers.

In what is perhaps the biggest initiative to date, twenty-one of the nation’s largest employers are pumping $100 million into the American Business Collaborative for Quality Dependent Care, a six-year effort to improve child and eldercare for their employees. The second phase of a smaller effort launched in 1992, it includes 1000 projects in 31 states and the District of Columbia.

“Investing in programs that improve the quality of life for US workers pays off on the bottom line,” says Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich. “Workers who are successful in balancing work and family are also the most successful workers.”