Wanted: Parent-Pleasing Policies

Benefits that let workers tend to family matters don't have to be extravagant or expensive to work well

In a tight labor market, kids count. That's the message from a recent survey of small-business owners in Michigan. Asked their opinion of the statement "Child care is an increasingly important business issue," 31% of the 200 owners surveyed agreed it was completely true. An additional 55% said the statement was mostly true.

Jeff Padden, whose firm, Public Policy Associates, conducted the survey for the Small Business Association of Michigan, attributes the strong response to ongoing competition for employees. For small business, in particular, he says, "The best way to resolve worker shortages is to hang on to the people you've got."

Clearly, entrepreneurs are picking up on that. A related item in the survey -- in which owners were asked to rate the statement "Family-friendly policies are increasingly important to applicants" -- drew an even stronger response. Thirty-one percent agreed the statement was completely true, and 61% said it was mostly true.


  Still, awareness doesn't always translate into action. Small-business owners often think they can't afford to compete with larger companies offering family-friendly benefits. But that's not always the case, says Padden. While on-site child care may be beyond the reach of most small businesses, other parent-pleasing benefits are relatively affordable.

A few examples: flexible spending accounts for medical expenses or child care, and backup child-care arrangements for those days when an employee's babysitter calls in sick. The latter might involve paying highly reduced rates to reserve a few slots at a local day-care center.

But the most obvious thing small businesses can offer workers is flexibility. Says Padden: "If somebody needs to start a half-hour later because they need to get a young child off to school, that doesn't cost a firm anything."

By Julie Fields in New York

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