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Employers Earn Work-Family Honors

February 6, 1998

MIAMI (AP) _ When Jennifer Rechsteiner, a new mother with cerebal palsy, needed extra time off work to care for her baby, she received nine months of leave. When she returned to work, her baby went to on-site daycare.

The employer who helped Rechsteiner cope with the challenges of parenting? The U.S. Coast Guard.

It may seem strange that the U.S. military _ with its emphasis on obedience and duty _ is out-front in the work-family world. But the Coast Guard has in six years erected a network of programs that work-family experts call amazing.

For its work, the Coast Guard won an award Friday at the annual conference of the Alliance of Work-Life Professionals’ _ the largest trade group in the work-family arena. The city of Honolulu and AT&T Corp. also won the alliance’s ``Innovative Excellence″ awards.

The Coast Guard ``is a group that has managed to change the culture of the military. Think about it,″ said Karen Woodford, head of the awards committee, in giving the Coast Guard its award. ``It has discovered that in order to retain employees, you have to retain their families.″

With 30 percent of its 35,700 active duty members relocating annually, the Coast Guard has work-family challenges that in some ways exceed most corporations’. Families are uprooted, new jobs must be learned, new friends made with each move.

The service got involved in the work-family field in 1992, after an internal survey showed a strong need for more support. Previously, a few work-family progams were offered to civilians, not active-duty personnel.

``When we initiated it, many people were skeptical, they didn’t want to spend the resources,″ said Rear Adm. Gordon Piche, director of personnel management. A follow-up survey in 1994, however, showed that the programs were among the most valued in the Coast Guard, he said.

``We have lots of single parents and members married to members,″ said Piche in a telephone interview from Washington. ``When a member gets a call to do a rescue, knowing they have immediately available child care is important.″

Along with operating nine on-site child care centers, the Coast Guard now offers an unusual program in which nonworking spouses on base are trained as in-home childcare providers for their and other people’s children.

Another program allows employees to donate time off to workers with special needs, and allows employees _ such as Rechsteiner _ to receive unpaid time off.

``It raised my commitment to the Coast Guard,″ said Rechsteiner, a civilian whose daughter Caitlin is now 2 years old. ``When I needed something from them _ some flexibility _ they were right there for me. ... I still think about that.″ She spoke in an interview at the conference.

Coast Guard personnel can also get a one-time chance to step away from active duty without pay for two years to care for newborn children. To date, 81 women and 50 men have taken advantage of the program.

As well, the service offers flexible work hours, job-sharing, part-time work and reimbursement for adoption costs up to $2,000. Its latest initiative is a telecommuting program.

Many of the programs are open to all of the service’s 125,000 active duty, civilian, auxiliary and reserve staff.

While little known, it’s not unheard of for the military to have good work-family programs, said Faith Wohl, head of the Child Care Action Campaign and a member of the committee that chose the awards.

But what distinguishes the Coast Guard is its comprehensive approach, she said. ``They really understand the connection between supporting the family and retaining (peoples’) skills.″

AT&T won the award for its ``Summer of Service″ program, in which teen-agers perform community service during the summer holiday. Parents pay $15 to $40 weekly, and the teen-agers receive a small stipend.

The program, first tested in Denver, will be opened in 20 communities nationwide this year.

Honolulu won its award for ``Child Care in the Parks,″ a program that established 10 free or affordable child care programs in city parks. The program especially targets low-income children.

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