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(WOMENSENEWS)–Not so long ago, family-friendly benefits were mainly considered the concern of young female workers.
But no more, says sociologist and labor leader Jamie F. Dangler.

‘When we began working on family leave in 2001, members who did not have primary responsibility for the care of children perceived family leave as an issue of young mothers,’ said Dangler, associate professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Cortland. She is also the chair of the statewide family leave committee of the United University Professors, which represents more than 34,000 academic and professional staff on 29 State University of New York campuses.

But over the years, Dangler said that the committee’s statewide surveys, presentations on campuses and highlighting of family leave at a 2006 delegate assembly have shown that the needle is moving. Now, she says, members are more likely to see family leave as an issue that affects everyone at some point in their lives and careers and that it should be included in the contract.

In another populous state, a 2006 union survey of 400 janitors in Southern California asked members about what they wanted most in the way of family-friendly benefits in contract negotiations. Respondents belonged to Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 35,000 janitors and other property service workers in California; about half of the members in the state are women. The Institute for Democracy Education and Access at the University of California, Los Angeles, helped conduct the survey.

Help With School Tops List

Help in guiding their children’s education topped the list, said Aida Cardenas, executive director of Building Skills Partnership, a nonprofit collaboration among Local 1877, community leaders, janitorial contractors and the Building Owners and Managers Association, which provides vocational and life skills training for Local 1877 members.

‘Seventy percent of respondents said they wanted their children to attend college but were afraid that the children would be unable to do so because they lived in communities where the high school dropout rate was as high as 40 percent,’ said Cardenas.

Some workers who had emigrated from Latin America and other parts of the world didn’t understand how the U.S. educational system functioned, which made it difficult for them to help children with homework and apply to colleges.
‘Because they worked at night, other members said they could not attend parent-teacher conferences and other evening activities at their children’s schools,’ added Cardenas.

Several janitors with school-aged children joined the union’s bargaining team and helped persuade management to allocate money for ‘parent universities,’ which provide members with counseling and workshops on issues such as communicating with teachers and understanding report cards. The money came out of an existing fund for worker education, which supports computer training, English classes and life skills training. Employers contribute three cents for each hour a union member works.

Linking to Productivity, Profits

‘Management is more likely to approve a family-friendly benefit if the union can show that it will boost productivity and profits,’ said Netsy Firestein, executive director of the Labor Project for Working Families, an advocacy group based in Berkeley, Calif. For that reason, a new Web site launched by the Labor Project includes studies showing that absenteeism and employee turnover decreases when workers have flexible schedules.
Dangler said that educating union members about the importance of including family-friendly benefits in collective bargaining is as critical as winning the support of management.

Unions like the United University Professors are using existing federal and state laws to set the floor to bargain for broader family-friendly benefits.

‘Management is more likely to say yes if the union presents the new benefit as building on the 1993 Federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and the cost of health insurance during the leave,’ Dangler said.

In 2008, United University Professors negotiated a new program that will help employees spread out the financial burden for family care leaves that are planned, such as birth, adoption or scheduled medical treatments. The program allows the employee to defer a portion of earned income from the period it was actually earned to a period of time when the employee would otherwise be on a scheduled unpaid leave.

The new contract, which will expire on May 1, 2012, allows 30 sick days a year, up 15 from the previous contract, for family care purposes.

‘While this was a major contract victory that gives an employee more time to take care of a family member with cancer or other major illness, many other incremental changes will be necessary to achieve our goal of guaranteed paid family leave for every employee,’ Dangler said.

Over the next few years, Dangler said that her committee will be looking for ways to help newer employees who haven’t built up sick-leave time or people who have used sick days for their own illnesses when a family care need arises.

Sharon Johnson is a New York City-based freelance writer.