Storms, school closings provide ultimate workplace flexibility test
The Miami Herald
BY CINDY KRISCHER GOODMAN
As Floridians set out frantically buying storm supplies this past weekend, one announcement created almost as much panic as the threat of high winds: public schools would close on Monday.
For working parents, the news triggered a mad scramble for child-care solutions, particularly when most businesses chose to stay open. Trapped, some parents were forced to take a vacation or sick day, others showed up at work with kids in tow, while the desperate begged relatives or babysitters to step in at the last minute.
Across the country, hundreds of companies boast of being family-friendly workplaces. But to me, days like Monday speak volumes about the reality of that label. For parents, it’s not only how our employers react to our need for accommodation during weather related events; it’s also how well they’ve planned for it.
As news of Tropical Storm Isaac circulated, top managers at C3/CustomerContactChannels in Plantation held meetings to prepare for various scenarios. Supervisors were told to allow employees to work from home when possible and encourage staff to download documents to their laptop hard drives to be able to work on them even without an Internet connection. Even more, the company, which operates call centers around the world, began brainstorming ways that hourly workers could make up time off for weather-related office closures.
On Monday, when downpours flooded the streets, Alicia Laszewski, vice president of communications at C3, asked to work from home. Pregnant, Laszewski says she felt uncomfortable making the commute to the office and had two young children out of school. She got the green light to work from home. “It builds loyalty that they have respect for me and my health and my family,” Laszewski said.
At some offices such as Boardroom Communications in Plantation and Soffer Health Institute in Aventura, the emergency child-care plans for staff include allowing parents to bring kids with them to work. Emira Soffer works as a business manager for her brother at Soffer Health Institute in Aventura. On Monday, she brought her two daughters, 7 and 9, with her, putting them to use inserting promotional paperwork into informational folders. “It’s not typical that we bring kids to the office, but it’s a warm environment and there’s an understanding that it’s OK if we’re in a pinch.”
With storm season in full swing and weather-related shutdowns nationwide more common, brace for an even greater need for good planning. Nationwide, parents are discovering school districts are closing more often, hesitant to take chances with student safety and fearful of lawsuits. At the same time, the recession has led businesses to cut back on employee benefits that help with disaster preparedness. Only 32 percent of organizations now allow employees to bring their children to work in a child-care emergency, while 17 percent offer a child-care referral service and 3 percent provide access to backup child care, according to a Society for Human Resource Management survey of 550 employers.
Working mother Aida Segui-Luciano says she accepts that planning for last-minute school closings is her responsibility. Segui-Luciano, works in retail services at Tropical Financial Credit Union in Hollywood. Knowing she can’t do her job from home or bring kids to the bank, she saves a few days in her paid-time off bank as a precaution for storm season. On Monday, at home with her 13- and 12-year-old children and no power, Segui-Luciano said no one at her workplace questioned her decision to dip into her PTO bank of time off: “My manager is understanding that I have a family and have to take care of my family. I said I was taking the day off and he said, not a problem, see you tomorrow.”
Of course, some parents don’t plan and don’t have accommodations at work. Backed against a wall, they drop their kids off unsupervised at libraries, malls and movie theaters that are open for the day. Others leave their kids home alone. Felicia Jones, a security guard for a residential community in North Dade, gets paid by the hour and faced the tough choice Monday of losing a day’s income or leaving her pre-teen home alone. Going forward, Jones says she will make a backup plan to leave her daughter with friends.
If the home alone option is your back-up plan, prepare your children for how to handle emergencies and potential danger, parenting experts say. New to Florida, Amy McGraw, vice president of marketing at Tropical Financial Credit Union, says she overcame her storm panic and left her 16-year-old daughter at home on Monday to do her homework. But McGraw says she checked in often throughout the day, something family-friendly employers should expect and
encourage their working parents to do. Of course, working from home and keeping young kids entertained takes planning, too. On Monday, Janice Lusky Greenspan, a Miami public relationships account executive, pulled out a special bin with activities to keep her boys busy and prevent the need to lock herself in the bathroom to make a work-related phone call. The bin held items such as crossword puzzles, model airplane kits, comic books and dollar-store toys for her two sons, 6 and 9. “As a mom, if you don’t prepare, you’re screwed. We have eight more weeks of hurricane season with a good chance of this happening again.”
Remote workers say it’s days like Monday when the flexibility of their jobs pay off. A South Florida sales representative for Microsoft, Stephanie Kleiner says she had the technology in place and a boss with the right mindset to cope with the last-minute school closings. Kleiner says her manager quickly granted her request to stay off the roads and at home with her kids. “Mobile workers are always thinking ahead,” she says. “We’re used to managing and making due. We looked at it as a great day to catch up with desk work.”