Kid-Friendly Policies Don't Help Singles

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 17, 2006

If Barbara Rose could, she would love to have three to six months off from her full-time job as a critical-care nurse in San Diego to finish her doctoral dissertation. But since she never had children, and never intends to, she knows she won't get the same sort of leave many of her new-mom co-workers have received.

Her boss did, however, offer her every other Friday off in January, which she took. It was a nice help, she said, but it's not the same leave or benefits available to parents.

She celebrates births and adoptions. She appreciates that her co-workers are producing the next generation of nurses. She knows they need that leave and is glad they have it. But, she asked, "must I have to give birth just to have my time be viewed as of equal value as the time my colleagues spend on their families?"

Since corporations started paying attention to "family-friendly" benefits in the late 1980s, child-free and single workers have wondered where their benefits were. They have expressed dismay that they felt they were asked to work more when employees with families needed time away from work. Others thought they were given the more difficult jobs with less financial reward because those with children were considered to have greater financial needs.

The proportion of single-person households increased to 26.4 percent in 2003 from 17.1 percent in 1970, according to 2003 census figures. Add to that the number of married couples without children, and that's about 55 percent of U.S. households.

Unmarried America, formerly the American Association for Single People, says about 40 percent of the workforce is made up of unmarried people, many of whom don't need leave to take care of children or a sick spouse. So many of them wonder: What about me?

The Family and Medical Leave Act allows anyone who is working for an organization of 50 or more employees to take time off for a serious health condition. It also allows employees to take time off to care for a sick "immediate" family member, defined as spouse, child or parent. But some workers with no children might define an immediate family differently.

Childless workers thought they worked more than people who were married with kids and that they had to work holidays more often and did not have access to as many benefits, according to "Beyond Family-Friendly: Singles-Friendly Work Cultures and Employee Attachment." The lead author of the study is Wendy Casper, an assistant professor of management at the University of Texas at Arlington who got her master's and PhD at George Mason University.

Casper began to study the impact of family-friendly workplaces after she was traveling as a consultant and realized that the other consultants who traveled were all single with no children -- as she was, and is. "It started occurring to me: What about those people who can't use these benefits? How do they feel about it?" she said. "People do have different needs." And it's a business imperative to try to make things as equal as possible. "If you have a good workforce that people are happy to be in and their needs are being recognized, they are willing to do things that aren't part of their job just to help the company."

Some companies are working to accommodate singles.

For instance, Dickstein Shapiro LLP does not limit an alternative-schedule policy to people who want it for child-rearing reasons, said Michael Nannes, managing partner. "We can't discriminate based on lifestyle."

At least six years ago, Maria Colsey Heard was an associate at Dickstein. Married with no children, she decided to try an alternative schedule so she could have her Fridays off. Those days were used for errands: veterinarian, dry cleaner, dentist. "Like everyone else who works full time, I found it difficult to balance work duties and home responsibilities," she said.

She went on the schedule when she was still an associate. "A few people told me I was crazy and would not be able to advance if I did this," she said. But Heard, a litigator, is now a partner. She is also a new mother. When she returns to work, she will return to her four-day-a-week schedule. "But my priorities for my Fridays will change."

"My philosophy from the beginning was that you really want to be balanced in what you do," said Pandit Wright, senior executive vice president of human resources at Discovery Communications Inc., who noted she is a single-no-kids.

She attended a meeting on her first day 11 years ago where several parents said they wanted on-site child care. But there were few people with children then, she said. And she was more interested in building a culture that "was not just family-friendly." She said, "We wanted a flexible culture."

The first thing she did was give three personal days off a year for anyone. That's on top of a minimum of 10 days of vacation leave and 10 days of sick leave. The company calls the personal days "balance days."

Michael Hunston, manager of administration at Discovery, uses those days to volunteer with an organization in the District. He also benefits from Discovery's health-care coverage for domestic partners. When his partner was moving between jobs, Hunston was able to cover both of them. "I never even thought of the benefits package at Discovery being family-friendly or not family-friendly -- just employee-friendly."

Other services, such as a concierge for people to get dry cleaning done on site, a wellness center, and flex-time and telework options are available to everyone on a case-by-case basis, Wright added.

But, Wright said, some things are available to parents that aren't available to those who don't have children. "I don't believe a person should think in terms of tit for tat," she said. "Like it or not, the next generation is someone you're going to have to deal with. It behooves all of us to have an environment where parents can do what they do."

There is still no on-site day care center at Discovery, but Wright said the company is looking into having a site near the headquarters. At the same time, the company is looking into a sabbatical program for all of its employees.

The fact that she is single with no kids "helped to always keep in mind you didn't want the backlash," she said. "I didn't want to be the person who just has things for people with kids."

Join Amy from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday at to discuss your life at work. You can e-mail her Listen to Amy every Monday at 12:50 p.m. on Washington Post Radio, 107.7 FM/1500 AM.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company