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Working Family Values: a glossary

As the nature of our work and workday changes, so do the words we use to describe what's happening to us and our families. For instance, you used to be laid off, which meant there wasn't enough work to go around. Now, you're downsized, which means there's the same amount of work, only you won't be doing it. But downsize, an active verb that's affected millions of Americans, is not to be found in most dictionaries -- or spell checks, for that matter. Like downsize, there's a whole parade of terms you best arm yourself with before braving today's changing workplace and its enormous impact on life at home.


 

Benefits: A large part of a working family's security is what they earn from their job in addition to their salary. Traditionally, benefits included comprehensive health care and dental care for the entire family, paid vacation and sick days, "personal" days, bonuses, re-imbursement for self-improvement or job-related education expenses, and a retirement/pension plan. With the coming of the 1989-1993 economic recession and the trend in "downsizing," many workers had to face serious cutbacks in their benefits. if not outright termination. Greater competition for jobs found companies able to offer fewer benefits. But where some traditional benefits became scarce, the new dynamics of the new marketplace produced others: more flex-time and telecommuting (see terms), participation in company profit-sharing or stock purchase program, some child care assistance.

 

Bonus: A financial reward, usually, at the end of the year, said to signify approval of a worker's performance. No company is legally bound to provide a bonus, but it's considered good form, if the company has had a good year, to provide a bonus to employees.

 

Breakfast: A mythical hour from America's past where bacon, eggs, pancakes, juice, coffee, cream and free home made bread were heaped on the table before mom and dad went to work and the kids to school. Today, it's an amorphous period of time between 7 and 7:20 where the refrigerator door is left open, NPR drones on the radio, MTV on the television, the shower is running, sinks overflowing, the dog barking and the microwave beeping with serial zapping of pop tarts, coffee mugs and frozen bagels.

 

Childcare: In the old days, the royalty hired nannies to watch their offspring while they administered the realm and held vast parties celebrating their own power. Today, parents seek competent people to work at caring for their children while they work at earning enough money to pay the mortgage, and maybe catch a movie every month or two. Up until two-year-old. families usually hire an individual (i.e. illegal immigrant). After two, organized child care groups or pre-schools take over. Parents seeking childcare should proceed through friends, and thoroughly check the references and background of the providers. Some companies -- a vast minority -- now help employees with the expense of providing childcare. President Clinton has signalled his intention to offer federal money to help poor and middle-income parents pay for childcare and join the workforce.

 

Contingent work: The term was coined in the 80s to describe a lot of different work arrangements -- not just temps. It includes independent contractors, on-call workers, many part-time workers, leased workers, and day laborers or "just in time workers." It's a growing trend in which more and more people are working on a temporary basis with no benefits or job security. The number of people in the U.S. who are unemployed, self-employed, or on short-term contracts is currently about 35 percent. In a 1994 cover story entitled "The End of the Job," Fortune said, "What is disappearing is not just a certain number of jobs in certain industries or jobs in some parts of the country or even jobs in America as a whole. What is disappearing is the very thing itself: the job. That much sought after, much maligned social entity, is vanishing like a species that has outlived its evolutionary time.

 

Dinner Time: See "Breakfast" substitute Chicken Pot Pie for pop tart and dinner rolls for frozen bagel.

 

Dress Down Day or Casual Business Wear: The trend toward more casual wear in the work place started about five years ago in response to lighter work loads on Friday and people working more at home, and in cubicles. It's an attempt to improve morale. In workplaces that welcome casual wear there may be recognition that getting the job done right is more important than what you wear. It does raise issues about what is appropriate work attire.

 

Flex-Time: Allowing a worker to structure his/her workday to meet the individual needs of the worker's life. E.G., coming in early and leaving early, to be able to pick up a child from school, or elderly parent from a senior center. Or working a part of the workday at home to meet some of the same needs.

 

Health Insurance: Once a standard benefit of the workplace, soaring health care costs in the 1980s encouraged many companies to try to junk their health care plans, or switch to the lower costs -- and fewer benefits -- of Health Maintenance Organizations. Rather than pay for service with the physician of the patient's choice, HMOs require the worker to choose from a doctor that's part of a pre-paid group. Members of this group can be paid as little as $3 per patient per month.

 

Paid Vacation: An increasingly shrinking period of time (see "downsizing" where the worker switches doing the boss's work for pay with doing the childcare worker's job.

 

Parental Leave: Under the federal Parental Leave Act passed and signed in 1993, a company must grant up to six months of unpaid off to allow an employee to care for a sick or otherwise incapacitated family member, or for pregnancy and early child care.

 

Pension: Where a company matches a deduction taken from your pay check in order to fund a savings plan for your retirement years. A popular and until recently an indispensable component of any employment package, manhy pension plans today are negotiable parts of an employee's benefit package.

 

Profit Sharing: This is where you receive a pre-arranged percentage of a company's profits in lieu of any requests for higher salary or benefits.

 

Telecommute: To work from home. The "SOHO" (single-operator home office) is a growing movement. One in three American homes already has a computer; some 40 percent of these have modems. Virtually every salesman or woman has a portable telephone. Many studies show productivity improves when people work at home. Telecommuting is hardly a new trend. Companies as big as Disney and Ford both started as home-based businesses. Mostly management consultants, writers, etc. tend to work at home. But, it doesn't appear that any kind of worker can work at home. A telecommunity is where citizens integrate work, education and civic action electronically.

 

Livelyhood's second one-hour special, "Working Family Values," aired on PBS in May 1998. For information on how to order the show, call 510-268-WORK.

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