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Several months ago, Betty Holcomb came to Ms. saying that as a reporter covering work and family issues, she kept hearing about low-wage workers who weren't being offered the child care, family leave, job-sharing, and flextime benefits that higher-paid workers were getting. This was especially galling in companies that had been cited, often with lots of media fanfare, for their family-friendly policies. When we heard from Holcomb that benefits were so linked to an employee's salary, we told her to go after the story. As part of the effort, the Families and Work Institute agreed to crunch some numbers for us. The result is the first study to document how income and job level affect access to family-friendly benefits. Unfortunately, the numbers prove that, when it comes to these benefits, the more you earn, the more you get. --The Editors


One might assume that Lynnell Minkins, a single mother of three, would be thrilled to work for Marriott International. Last year, Marriott made Working Mother magazine's list of the 100 best companies for working mothers, largely because it offers flexible work schedules, hot lines to help employees deal with child-care emergencies, and three on-site child-care centers. Minkins, a food server at the San Francisco Marriott, could use that sort of help. But it's not available to her. Instead, she never knows from week to week what her hours will be, making it hard to find and hold on to decent child care, let alone make plans. "How can I get doctor appointments if I don't know when I'll be working?" she asks. "A month ahead, the clinic says there are only these days. I take them, and then I have to work."

When her kids were younger, she relied on a neighbor, paying a flat rate to send them over whenever she had to work. But now that they're in school, she has to figure out how to get them there on days she has to be at work early. A simple schedule change could solve everything, but she hasn't asked for one. "I don't dare bring it up. I'm afraid I'll get written up." A write-up means getting disciplined, and too many write-ups can lead to losing her job.

The irony is that, at least officially, Marriott offers flextime to its approximately 135,000 U.S. employees. Yet the one time Minkins tried it, her supervisors constantly pressed her to fix the "problem," and in her annual performance review that year she was described as being "challenged" by time management. "I should have called them on it, but I let it go," she says. "People who work in these jobs, they need the money. So you don't tell anybody what's going on." Senior managers, says Minkins, don't seem to suffer the same scrutiny. "It doesn't look like their job is being challenged. The lower people, the people in the back of the house, they're having the problems."

So it goes for hundreds of thousands of lower-level workers at companies widely recognized for their "family-friendly" policies. In fact, the research conducted by the Families and Work Institute exclusively for this article shows that the workers who most need benefits such as child care and flexible hours are the least likely to get them.

Consider these facts from the study. Workers in low-wage jobs are:

  • half as likely as managers and professionals to have flextime;
  • less likely to have on-site child care;
  • more likely to lose a day's pay when they must stay home to care for a sick child;
  • three times less likely to get company-sponsored tax breaks to help pay for child care.

In addition, other studies show that workers in entry-level, low-paying, or low-status jobs are much less likely to be offered a paid maternity leave than managers are, and in the case of unpaid leave, they are less likely to get as much time off after having a baby.

"It's clear that more advantaged workers have more access to certain benefits," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. Put another way, some families seem to count more than others. "You ask yourself if people really care about the family benefits of people who clean the toilets, who clean the office buildings after everyone else leaves," says Netsy Firestein, director of the Labor Project for Working Families in Berkeley, California. "Who's taking care of their kids? Often it's older children putting younger ones to bed, while the parents struggle to make wages and get health insurance paid."

"For the first time, research shows that the gap between the haves and have-nots is becoming wider," says Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute, which ran the numbers below for Ms. "Some of the statistics are startling," she adds. "Only two in five low-wage workers are allowed time off--without pay--to care for a sick child." Equally startling is how few family-related benefits are available to anyone: less than a quarter of workers get help finding child care. Trying to right the imbalance for low-income workers, in 1996 the Institute helped found the Employer Group, which is searching for new solutions. "The picture is bleak, but there is light ahead," says Galinksy. "The problem has been that nobody has paid attention to this."

The less you have, the less you get
Family-friendly benefits by job title and income:
  Managers and Professionals Other
Have daily flextime
Allowed time off without pay for a sick child
Employer offers service to help find child care
Employer offers pre-tax account for child care
Employer offers service to help find elder care
  Earn $45,000 or more Earn $29,000 or less
Have daily flextime
Allowed time off without pay for a sick child
Employer offers service to help find child care
Employer offers pre-tax account for child care
Employer offers service to help find elder care
Cartoon by Jennifer Camper