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Perking Up

Along with traditional regulatory and competitive issues, businesses face challenges posed by the changing demographics of their employees -- from increased ethnic and religious diversity to more single parents in the workforce. As managers come to understand the relationship between their employees' overall quality of life and their productivity at work, many have tailored benefits and policies that help their workers meet both family and professional needs.

In a 2003 article, Tammy Allen of the University of South Florida's Department of Psychology identified the major organizational barriers to creating a "family-friendly" workplace: Gender role assumptions, lack of national policy, rigid schedules, lack of management support and individual corporate culture. "These barriers do not operate independently," Allen wrote, "but rather work hand in hand in preventing organizations from achieving a family-supportive environment."

Many Florida businesses have begun to tackle those issues. Indeed, the best evidence of the trend toward "family friendly" may be the broad institutionalized recognition of "family-friendly businesses" that has emerged, ranging from lists in local newspapers and national publications like Fortune to honors from organizations like the United Way.

Following is a sample of what some Florida firms are doing to be family friendly on a number of fronts.


Home-Buying Help, Interest-Free
Two years ago, the Bonita Bay Group, the Bonita Springs-based master-planned community developer, saw some of its 1,500 employees being priced out of the real estate market in Collier County. The company introduced an employee financial assistance program for those looking to buy their first home. Employees can borrow up to $5,000 interest-free to use as a down payment or to clean up their credit to help them purchase their first home. They can repay the loan through payroll deductions over five years. Employees who qualify for federal affordable housing programs only need to repay 40% of the loan. The company will look into expanding its home-buying assistance program this year to keep up with rising real estate prices in its area.

Free Housing for Seasonal Workers
A. Duda & Sons Inc. of Oviedo is a family-owned and operated agribusiness and real estate development company with 962 full-time employees, including 771 in Florida. The company provides housing to its seasonal/migrant workers (about 1,500), charging only a nominal fee for utilities. It also offers them a full benefits package that includes healthcare, insurance, vacation pay and a 401(k) plan. Last October, Hurricane Wilma destroyed most of the workers' housing and many of their personal possessions. The company obtained new mobile homes and implemented an ad hoc "Adopt-a-Family" program, where Duda employees helped co-workers and their families.


Extra Vacation Time for Sale
Two years ago, the Bonita Bay Group, the Bonita Springs-based master-planned community developer, saw some of its 1,500 employees being priced out of the real estate market in Collier County. The company introduced an employee financial assistance program for those looking to buy their first home. Employees can borrow up to $5,000 interest-free to use as a down payment or to clean up their credit to help them purchase their first home. They can repay the loan through payroll deductions over five years. Employees who qualify for federal affordable housing programs only need to repay 40% of the loan. The company will look into expanding its home-buying assistance program this year to keep up with rising real estate prices in its area.


Knocking Down Barriers

Bayfront Health System, with a host of family-friendly policies and benefits, has been recognized by Working Mother magazine as one of the top companies to work for in the country. Bayfront, with 2,500 employees, is one of a few companies ambitious enough to tackle the gender-stereotyping issues that USF's Tammy Allen identifies as an institutional barrier to family-friendly workplaces. More than half the hospital's managers are women, and Bayfront offers a mentoring program called Adventures in Leadership to help women employees further their careers.


Creating Savvier Investors

At WilsonMiller, an engineering firm based in Naples, more than 90% of the 600 employees participate in the company's 401(k) plan. But the company found that participation didn't always correspond to investment savvy. "Most people don't know how to manage their investments," says human resources director Steve Csotty, so WilsonMiller now offers the services of an outside money management firm to its employees, and more than two-thirds make use of it. Employees pay less than 1% of their total investment, and WilsonMiller picks up other management costs. There is no minimum investment required.

Giving Workers an Ownership Stake

Along with offering 401(k) plans and tuition reimbursement, some privately held companies like Publix Super Markets in Lakeland allow employees to purchase stock in the company. Publix, with some 135,000 employees in five states, including 107,000 in Florida, allows employees with a year's experience to buy in. Since 1959, when employee stock options were first made available, the annual rate of return has averaged 17%. In the early '90s, Publix also added a 401(k) plan. Publix matches employee contributions up to $750 a year.

On-site or near-site child-care centers have become common at many businesses. With more than 8,000 employees, Westgate Resorts is one of the largest timeshare resort operators in central Florida. The company runs a Children's Learning and Development Center in Orlando and subsidizes child-care costs.


Kicking the Habit

Baptist Health South Florida, headquartered in Coral Gables, employs 11,000, making it the largest south Florida-based private employer. Along with child care and other family-friendly benefits, the non-profit healthcare organization offers a wellness program that helps employees follow a healthy lifestyle. Hospital-based fitness centers are offered to employees for free, and a wellness team provides free health screenings and programs. Employees who want to stop smoking are reimbursed for their smoking cessation courses and supplies, and those who don't smoke pay less for their health insurance.

Work/Life Trends

Some work/life trends, according to Work/Life Today newsletter:
» With a flurry of major storms over the past two years, more companies are offering disaster relief benefits, including free counseling for post-disaster stress and adopt-a-family programs.
» Assistance for identity theft victims, including pay for lost workdays and reimbursement for expenses, including legal fees.
» Work/life-themed training for managers, including some plans that tie a manager's pay to employee satisfaction.
» Elder-care benefits, including assistance finding elder-care aid and elder-care leave.