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Working mothers

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Returning to work after giving birth is tough. Running a half-marathon on top of that is tougher.

But Kirstie Foster did it with the help of her employer General Mills Inc., which provides onsite childcare and health facilities at the company's Minneapolis headquarters. After dropping off her daughter at daycare every morning, Foster met with a food behaviorist, a nutritionist and a personal trainer. Six months later, she crossed the finish line.

``After you have a baby, you tend to focus on everything but yourself,'' said Foster, a corporate public relations manager and runner who has managed to add family life to the mix. ``It's difficult to find the time of day to work out and plan meals.''

General Mills is among a host of companies that have expanded services for working mothers beyond just maternity leave and flexible hours, according to Working Mother magazine, which released its 19th annual list Tuesday of the 100 best companies for working mothers.

The business rationale behind these efforts? Cheaper and more convenient health care and fitness programs mean employees are more likely to take advantage of them. And happier, healthier employees typically translates into boosted productivity, less absenteeism and fewer health care and disability expenses for the company years down the road, according to Working Mother Media CEO Carol Evans. It also helps mothers maintain a better balance between work and family life, she said.

Foster, a General Mills manager, agrees. ``It's not only a cost savings. More importantly, it's a time savings,'' she said. ``When I go home at night, I can go spend time with my husband and daughter.''

The general trend among employers nationwide has been toward increased work flexibility options and eldercare benefits in the past few years, while childcare benefits have remained at about the same level, said Ellen Galinsky, president of the nonprofit Families and Work Institute in New York, which was not involved with the study.

Where companies in the booming late 90s offered more ``bells-and-whistles'' benefits, today companies are sticking more to fundamentals, Galinsky said _ for example, new ways to offer flexible hours, such as part-year work.

``Things like that are the new frontier,'' Galinsky said.

Another trend evident at many of the magazine's choices is a growing understanding that working mothers are daughters, too. Companies increasingly are offering such services as dependent-care centers for aging parents and elder health care and referrals.

As the baby boomer generation ages and the average lifespan increases, eldercare has become a new focus for IBM Corp., which has appeared in Working Mother's top 100 since the list's inception. While the company has offered eldercare and referral services since 1988, the need for such services has tripled from 9 percent of IBM employees to 27 percent, according to Maria Ferris, manager of work/life and women's initiatives at IBM.

New offerings at the world's biggest seller of computers and related services include care planning and monitoring, a phone check-in service, an elder facility review program and online discussion groups.

``We've found (having a dependent parent) can be very isolating,'' Ferris said. ``It's not a very happy topic. Around the watercooler, everyone wants to talk about babies. No one wants to talk about a sick parent.''

All but one of the 100 companies on the list provide eldercare referral services, compared with 21 percent of companies nationwide. And 28 percent offer emergency or backup emergency elder care, compared with 2 percent nationwide.

To remain competitive in attracting quality employees, companies also need to keep up with the times _ an effort that can range from offering such trendy luxuries as massages and yoga classes to readying for wartime setbacks and natural disasters.

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., in response to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, created a patriotic leave program for employees called into active duty, said Christine Fossaceca, the company's global work/life solutions manager.

Hundreds of companies compete for a place on the Working Mother list each year by submitting a free application that includes 500 questions covering five major areas of interest. New York-based Working Mother Media, which is privately held, would not give specifics on advertising support for the issue, but said the number of ads was nearly double the monthly average.

Working Mother focused heavily on childcare options this year, as well as flexible scheduling and time off for new parents.

For pharmacist and attorney Tracy Baroni Allmon _ who has a 3-year-old and 7-month-old triplets _ Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s compressed work-week option, free baby formula shipments and onsite daycare have been career-savers.

``I can't think of a better situation,'' Allmon said.

New to the 2004 list were Virginia Commonwealth University Health System, UBS AG, TriHealth and Timberland Co.

Several names in last year's top 100 did not appear on the latest list, including Eastman Kodak Co., Liz Claiborne Inc. and Sallie Mae.

``We didn't see any pulling back of benefits in this rocky economy,'' Evans said, noting that to remain in the top 100, companies had to truly up the ante. The list ``keeps companies from getting complacent. You can drop off if you don't keep up.''

All companies on the list offer flextime hours, mental health insurance and work-at-home or telecommuting options.

Discovery Communications Inc. in Silver Spring, Md., prides itself in allowing its employees to work when and where they want through telecommuting and flexible hours, said Discovery CEO Judith McHale.

``Technology is a great enabler of these programs,'' said McHale, who has been recognized by Working Mother as this year's ``Family Champion.''

Carrie Passmore, Discovery's senior vice president of public partnerships, has two sons in middle school. Through her Blackberry and other remote technology, Passmore frequently works from home to spend more time with her children and stay-at-home husband.

``It allows me to have the best of all worlds,'' Passmore said, ``to still have a wholesome family life.''
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