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Employee Benefits:
What Single Parents Should Know

by Nancy Winebarger


Most people find job interviews about as comfortable as a sandpaper straightjacket.   Unfortunately, if you're successful, the next step can be even more nerve-racking - asking for the compensation you deserve.

While the temptation to focus on cold hard cash is almost irresistible, compensation can and should encompass much more than just salary or wages.

Single parents need to scrutinize their benefits packages closely, because, not only will you save time and money, the benefits offered by a prospective employer speak volumes about the corporate culture, company priorities, and whether they value single parents as employees.

Therefore, before you start negotiating with your next employer, you should have a clear picture of your needs - paying special attention to schedule flexibility and child care requirements. In other words, don't go into negotiations without a comprehensive list of demands. Even if a prospective employer can't pay as much as you want, you may be offered benefits (such as subsidized, on-site child care) which compensate for the income difference by saving you time and stress.

Of course, your basic requirements - a decent wage, health insurance, and a little flexibility in the work schedule - must be met before you can even consider accepting an offer of employment. But there are a myriad of benefits available and, if our list of "Companies Going the Extra Mile" is any indication, the lot of single parents is steadily improving.

Employers are finding that few employees are as loyal, dedicated and driven to succeed as those motivated by the awesome responsibility of raising a child alone.

"MUST HAVE" BENEFITS FOR THE SINGLE PARENT

HEALTH INSURANCE- Young, healthy and childless employees may be able to get by for a while without a medical plan, but single parents do not have the luxury of being a little irresponsible. Health insurance, for you and your child or children, provides a financial safety net that you will desperately need if Fate sends you an accident or a chronic or life-threatening illness.

While catastrophic medical coverage is a "must-have," many employers are enrolled in HMOs or PPOs which usually cover preventive health care in addition to emergencies and hospitalization. Others offer employees a variety of medical coverage options to choose from, "cafeteria-style."

In any case, don't make assumptions about an employer's health plan. It is important to know exactly what the plan does and does not cover, as well as what portion of the premiums you'll be expected to pay. If there is an unusually high deductible, ask if the company makes contributions to employee Medical Savings Accounts (MSAs). These are investment accounts into which either the employer or the employee (but not both in the same year) make tax-deductible contributions. The money in an MSA will cover eligible medical expenses which the health plan does not (get the skinny on MSAs from the IRS at http://www.irs.ustreas.gov and link to Publication 525).

Whether you're offered a no deductible PPO paid for entirely by the employer or a high deductible plan with only half of the premium paid by the employer, health care expenses should be factored into your salary requirements. (TIP: Never divulge salary requirements to an employer until you've been offered the position and salary negotiations have begun. Know the going rate for someone with your qualifications, know exactly what you need and be prepared to walk if you don't get it. Don't be tempted by anxiety and money pressure into selling yourself short. You'll regret it later, if you do.)

RETIREMENT - Retirement planning is a must for everyone, be it in the form of a 401(K) or a traditional pension plan. Single parents in particular must plan for the future, since they have to be the sole provider for both their children and themselves.

Eligibility for retirement programs may vary but typically, employees become eligible after their first year with the company. If your employer does not offer a retirement plan, look into starting an Individual Retirement Account.

However, if your employer offers a 401(k), you should enroll in it, since most employers will contribute an additional 50 for each dollar the employee contributes (up to 6% of the employee's annual income). Additionally, the 401(k) allows contributions of up to $10,000 a year tax-deferred, versus $2,000 for an IRA.

Real forward-thinkers may want to open an IRA in addition to the 401(k) - which would allow them to squirrel away a combined total of up to $12,000 tax-deferred per year. An Education IRA for your child's college expenses allows you to contribute an additional $500 a year (per child), tax-deferred.

No matter whether your employer offers a retirement plan or you go it alone, a little research goes a long way towards fattening up that nest egg. Financial advisors, the Internet, and publications like Kiplinger's and Money Magazine (at newsstands and online at http://www.kiplinger.com and http://www.money.com, respectively) are great sources of information.

VACATION AND SICK LEAVE - The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) requires employers to allow employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for personal illness, the illness of an immediate family member or for the birth or adoption of a child. The FMLA is applicable to employees who work a minimum of 1,250 hours during the year and are employed for at least one year by a company with 50 or more employees.

Through the FMLA, the federal government has given employees some leverage to deal with inflexible leave policies. But while it helps employees keep their jobs when emergencies strike, the FMLA offers no financial help for those who must put it to use.

The amount of paid leave an employer offers will give you a good feel for the corporate culture and attitudes towards family. An allowance of fewer than 10 days paid leave per year suggests a lack of flexibility and an environment wholly unsympathetic, if not downright hostile, to the responsibilities of single parents.

It also means a loss of income when - not if - situations like childcare emergencies arise, which demand time away from work. While that income loss may be difficult to estimate, it can still be used as leverage in salary negotiations.

SEPARATING THE WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF

LIFE AND DISABILITY INSURANCE - Since many employers do not include life and disability insurance in their benefits packages, it may not occur to you when negotiating for benefits. However, it is critical to your children's welfare and survival in the event of your death or unemployment due to disability.

Of the employers who do offer disability insurance, most offer only short-term, since it is more affordable and is the most likely scenario for their employees. If your employer does not offer life or disability insurance, or not enough for your peace of mind, it is extremely important that you go ahead and purchase what you need, then figure the cost into your salary requirements.

BONUSES, PROFIT SHARING, AND STOCK OPTIONS- Bonuses are typically awarded based on the individual employee's performance and many employers have established guidelines which define what is bonus-worthy. Income from profit-sharing and stock options is performance-based, but it is based on the success of the entire company rather than the individual.

Either way, the presence of any of these incentives generally bespeaks a "share the wealth" philosophy which makes employees feel a little less like wage serfs and more like mini-owners who have a real stake in the health and future of their company.

TUITION REIMBURSEMENT - Many employers recognize that a well-trained staff is a key factor in remaining competitive in the modern marketplace. Some firms even require employees to complete a certain number of college credit hours per year in order to keep pace with the advances in their field. Companies like these offer full or partial tuition reimbursement as part of their benefits packages. Thanks to this type of company investment in employees, they become more knowledgeable and, as a result, more valuable, not only to their current employer, but also to future employers.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: BEYOND THE BASICS

CHILD CARE - This is probably a greater source of stress and guilt than anything Mom could ever dish out. Luckily, increasing numbers of employers are beginning to realize that making affordable child care available helps attract quality employees and makes them stick around longer. Employees with reliable child care are usually far more productive than those who have to run around on their own to find providers and then worry about them.

The Rolls-Royce of child care benefits is the on-site child care center. It's a luxury that allows parents to see their children during the day, to be nearby in case of an emergency, and to avoid time-consuming drop-off/pick-up detours during their daily commutes. If the center's staff are also considered company employees with full benefits, the turnover rate is likely to be relatively low, further increasing the comfort level for both parent and child.

Unfortunately, most on-site centers aren't expansive enough to accommodate every employee, so ask if there is a waiting list. If there is, this particular benefit may be of no benefit to you.

Some employers actually subsidize child care for employees who are on the waiting list, while others have arrangements with local centers to give company employees first dibs when new slots open up for enrollment, sometimes even discounting tuition. If there is a waiting list at the on-site center, ask if any similar provisions are in place.

Many companies simply can't afford to maintain an on-site center, so they compensate with subsidies, reimbursement, dependent-care spending accounts, emergency-care resources, or referral services. Employer subsidies and reimbursement for child-care expenses can drastically help ease your financial burden.

The dependent-care spending account has one distinct advantage of its own: the income you redirect into the account is usually exempt from Social Security and federal income taxes (check out the IRS's Publication 15A at http://www.irs.ustreas.gov for specifics).

Every single parent's worst nightmare involves the reliability of their child care. Even with dependable providers, urgent situations can arise which render them unavailable. Emergency child care gives parents a backup plan, allowing them to go to work knowing that their child is in capable hands. While it won't directly cut your expenses, the emergency child-care benefit will definitely save you some sleepless nights.

WORK SCHEDULES

Here's a typical situation: you are offered a position in a company with no child care benefits, no retirement plan, no profit sharing, no life or disability insurance, and no tuition reimbursement. Why waste any more time with these clowns?

The answer might well be that they are willing to offer you one of the most precious and scarce resources for single parents - time. If your job allows you to break out of the strict 9-to-5 mold, then you may be a prime candidate for a flexible work schedule. Flextime, job sharing, telecommuting, or even part-time schedules are often far better suited to the lifestyles of single parents than the conventional work schedule.

FLEXTIME allows employees to redistribute the 40 hour work week to fit their needs (employees are usually given 2 or 3 alternative schedules to choose from). If you can arrange to work a 10-hour day 4 days a week, for instance, you'll have an extra day to spend with your child or catch up on all those nagging chores that never seem to get done during a traditional work week.

JOB SHARING enables pairs of employees who do the same work and have complementary scheduling needs to split the responsibilities of one position and (theoretically) work half the hours the job would require if only one person held it.

PART-TIME WORK, like job sharing, also allows the employee to work fewer hours, although the pay and benefits are most often too low to sustain life.

TELECOMMUTERS have what many consider to be an ideal situation: they can work full-time from home without any loss of pay or benefits. They avoid stressful daily commutes and can work in their pajamas with no fear of the inevitable bad hair day. However, working from your home doesn't mean you won't need child care, because unless you have eight arms and a spare brain, you won't be able to devote quality time to both your child and your job simultaneously.

However attractive these flexible schedules may be, they don't come without costs. Job sharing and part-time work are often subject to the "creeping clock" phenomenon. As difficult as it is for many of us to stop working after eight hours, it can be far more difficult to stop after a part-time day of 4 or 5 hours. Whether it's misplaced guilt, the competitive spirit, or just being in the zone, creeping clock may result in full-time work
for part-time pay.

Additionally, just as the income and benefits of part-timers are prorated relative to full-time pay, part-timers and those who job share may have proportionately lower chances of career advancement. Even full-timers who telecommute may wind up getting left behind when it comes time for promotions, passed over for others who are there every day at the office. The old adage, "Out of sight, out of mind" holds true in many cases, because there is often a faulty perception on the part of co-workers and bosses that those who work from home (or less than full-time schedules) are not as dedicated as their colleagues who schlep to the office every day.

You may be able to head off many of these doubts simply by putting in one full day at the office per week, or finding other ways to remind your boss that you do, indeed exist. In any event, weigh your priorities carefully before you jump into an alternative scheduling arrangement. If time is more valuable to you than money or career advancement, then flexible scheduling may be the solution.

THAT EXTRA SOMETHING...

Whether it's an on-site dry cleaner or a pianist in the cafeteria, lots of companies will do whatever it takes to keep turnover low. Sometimes that means a company credit union, sometimes it's a free widget with every paycheck.

Some of the more common perks include free parking, a casual dress code, and free counseling and referral services. If you like to get "pumped up" for a day at the office, keep in mind that some companies actually provide on-site recreation centers (you were hoping for an on-site Starbuck's perhaps?).

For the socially conscious, there are even companies that offer employees paid leave to do volunteer work for various non-profit organizations. Other perks include summer jobs and college scholarships to children of employees. Everyone's benefit plan is different, so be thorough in your evaluation of them and don't be too rigid in your demands. The time you save by telecommuting, for instance, might just make up for not getting the three weeks vacation you were hoping for. Not everything is negotiable and you will probably run into employers who just can't meet your basic needs.

But our "Companies Going the Extra Mile" are proof that you can have it all... well, all except the on-site Starbuck's (though it's probably under advisement somewhere).

COMPANIES GOING THE EXTRA MILE

TRW - If on-site child care is the Rolls-Royce of child care benefits, then the TRW Space & Electronic Group's center in Redondo Beach, California (cleverly dubbed, the Launching Pad) is a chauffeur-driven Rolls with gold hubcaps and one of those Grey Poupon guys in the back seat. The Launching Pad provides the kind of high quality, age-appropriate education that has earned it accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, an honor bestowed upon less than 3% of all centers in the United States.

Despite being one of the largest on-site child care centers in the country, the Launching Pad boasts a low caregiver-to-child ratio. Hours are flexible, and parents are welcome to visit their children at any time. There's also a full-time cook and, for an extra fee, ballet lessons, music instruction, Superkids athletics and computer classes - what more could a little overachiever want? Find out more about the Launching Pad and TRW's other family-friendly benefits at www.trw.com.

MOTOROLA - Another firm believer in convenient, quality child care, Motorola provides on-site centers at many of its locations. They also have a child-care network in development (using home-based licensed care-givers) which would provide employees with even more child-care options.

Motorola has also taken into account some of the most common occasions for lack of child care - summer vacation and illness. School-age children of employees who are out of school for the summer may attend Motorola's summer camps offered in conjunction with their Museum of Electronics. For sick children, Motorola has implemented a Mildly Ill Child Care Program. The program allows the parent to go to work while a licensed caregiver stays home with the sick child.

Aside from their progressive child-care policies, Motorola's culture of flexibility makes it especially single-parent friendly. For more information about working at Motorola, visit their website at www.motorola.com.

PATAGONIA - On-site child care isn't the only way Patagonia has proven its commitment to families. For parents whose children are not enrolled at the on-site center, Patagonia maintains a family-care network of trained, in-home care providers with many in close proximity to Patagonia's offices. And school-age children can take advantage of Patagonia's accredited kindergarten and the "Kid's Club" after-school program - there's even a Kid's Club shuttle to pick them up from school.

But family isn't Patagonia's only commitment. Founded by surfers and climbers, Patagonia is famous for its environmentalism, backing up its image by offering environmental internships where employees are given up to 2 months paid leave to work for various environmental causes. To learn more about this family-friendly, planet-friendly company, link to their website: www.patagonia.com.

FANNIE MAE - Fannie Mae provides home-mortgage funding to help low- to middle-income families realize the American Dream and become homeowners. Perhaps it's this underlying commitment to narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots that has made Fannie Mae, like Patagonia, a champion of volunteerism. That's why Fannie Mae employees can take up to 10 hours per month paid leave to volunteer in schools or other non-profit organizations.

Other money-saving, time-saving (and sanity-saving) benefits at Fannie Mae include emergency back-up child care, dependent-care leave, an employee stock-purchase plan, and an on-site credit union. And when you decide you want to buy a home, it can't hurt to be on the inside track with the nation's biggest mortgage-financing institution. Visit Fannie Mae on the web at http://www.fanniemae.com for more information.

XEROX - Just as Patagonia and Fannie Mae support volunteerism, Xerox also encourages employees to be community-minded. The Xerox Community Involvement Program invites employees to submit proposals for funding of community projects. Ten to twenty projects are selected each year, and most receive between $10,000 and $15,000 in funding from Xerox.

But Xerox's interest in its employees runs every bit as deep as its involvement in the community. Not only does Xerox take care of employees' immediate child-care needs (with on-site care, salary redirection for dependent care, and referral services), they have also initiated a Dependent Care Development Fund to improve and increase dependent care resources in the community. This fund is used to train child-care providers, upgrade or purchase the equipment providers need, develop before- and after-school programs, provide back-up care for dependents (whether children or elders), and support transportation programs for elder dependents.

And if child care, telecommuting, stock options and extensive health care options aren't enough, keep in mind that Xerox also offers Lifecycle Assistance - a $10,000 stipend (up to $2,000 a year) to be used for anything from a down payment on a house to your child's college tuition. Find out more about employment opportunities at Xerox at www.xerox.com.

SAS INSTITUTE - This software company based in Cary, N.C. (just outside Raleigh) boasts a 4% turnover rate and with good reason - actually, many of them - including: two on-site Montessori-based child-care centers (and one near-site), an on-site health-care center that charges employees nothing (that's right - free medical care!), a caf which serves up gourmet fare and live entertainment (in the form of a pianist, not the R&D Director's Dixieland kazoo band), a 35,000-square-foot recreation center, wellness classes, an Employee Volunteer Fund, Flextime, 35-hour work weeks what's not to like? Find out how to join the party at www.sas.com.

These companies, along with many others, are setting the benefits bar higher, leading the way to better employee relations and job satisfaction. More importantly, they're proof positive that when you make it easier for employees to balance their work/life responsibilities, not only do employees thrive but so do their employers.

 

This article was originally published in Single Parent Magazine.

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