The State Of The Workplace

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

At the turn of the 20th century, the American family faced a most unfriendly workplace. Breadwinners could expect to work a minimum 10-hour day, six days a week, in brutal conditions. The minimum wage, health insurance, sick days, and paid vacation were fantasy.

The snapshot of the workplace at the start of the 21st century is noticeably different. Laws limit the length of the workweek and mandate overtime pay, a minimum wage, and workplace safety. Employer-subsidized health insurance, vacation and sick leave are the norm. And more recent innovations—unpaid family leave, child-care subsidies and work/life conferences—are becoming commonplace. Some employers even offer quirky benefits like access to pet insurance.

The ‘family friendly’ revolution
The quest to help employees find the perfect balance between work and family obligations has become so popular that it has spawned an industry of work/life professionals — in higher education, in the advocacy community and in government. In December 1999, the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management, which has its own family-oriented Workplace Working Group, praised agencies with the best work/life programs.

Magazines like Fortune and Working Mother encourage the same kind of competition in the private sector. Every year, Fortune names the “100 Best Companies to Work For,” while Working Mother ranks the “100 Best Companies for Working Mothers.” Benefits geared toward the family are at the heart of both lists, and companies diligently seek that high-profile recognition.

“Particularly in the last couple of years with the war for talent,” says Carlene Zuzith, assistant vice president of human resources for Working Mother’s No. 2-ranked Allstate Insurance Company, “it has become even more important for attracting talent. Employees tell us that these things are really very important to them. They’re high value.”

Today’s workplace is, in a phrase, “family friendly.” “When you take that very long view, there are a lot of positives to think about in the last century,” said Shelly McDermid, director of the Purdue University Center for Families, noting developments like family leave, child-labor laws, Social Security and laws against pregnancy-related discrimination. “That’s pretty exciting.”

The changes have become more pronounced in the past 20 years, says Susan Seitel, president of the Minnesota-based Work and Family Connection, a clearinghouse that tracks work/life developments. She points to the growth of child-care programs as an example. Only 400 employer-supported plans existed when her firm began tracking the issue in 1984; today there are about 8,000.