December 13, 2006

Café or the Cafeteria?

Should employers continue to grant extended benefits coverage to parents and decline to transition to “cafeteria” plans that set a single dollar amount for each employee?
This question was recently posed by Ms. Laura Ciaccio, Spokesperson for No Kidding! International, author of the Childfree News blog and, and also a Harvard Law student working on the above question for a course project. Here is the argument I sent her for her site.

We have to appreciate what we have in this country, the good ol’ U.S. of A., and one of those things is a free marketplace. Burgeoning entrepreneurship is a sign of a healthy economy. This well spring is the direct result of a healthy middle class, the size of which is also an indicator of a strong economy and a happy populace. Macroeconomists would agree but it’s hard for most of us to get the bigger picture. We all prosper when our economy prospers, and prosperity is not tied to what hand-outs our employers give us.

I am a Democrat, trying to develop Republican sensibilities. Now that liberals have won back both House and Senate, majority leaders and their followers have a responsibility to listen to the other side. Republicans have morphed into religious fanatics lately but they remain true to their true pro-economy, capitalist core. It is even more important to develop the ability to dialogue and come into the conversation open-minded. If we really feel like socialists at heart, we should move further north.

When I first heard about Ms. Ciaccio’s project and her stance, I cringed because telling a corporation how to take care of its employees feels a bit heavy handed. I look forward to the dialogue she stirs up and applaude her for doing so. Here’s my take and you are free to disagree with it:

I think we, the childfree, need to take responsibility for our own choices. We decided (or accepted) our status, and regardless the reason, we should not expect compensation for phantom children. The Achilles Heel of the argument that Ms. Ciaccio puts forward is that in fact we should have extra disposable income since we don’t have extra mouths to feed. As an employer, it is proper to take care of your employee and his or her family. This argument will not find a sympathetic ear with the great masses of parents (who outnumber us, by the way). The U.S. tax code already allows employers to offer pre-tax spending options for unreimbursed medical and caregiving expenses, be they child or elder. That is available to us all equally.

If we advocate that a company provide equal value in benefits to each employee, where would that money come from? Profits would be the first thing a board or business owner would move to protect. Head count and salary would be the likely target, so would the company picnic and ironically, the company-sponsored cafeteria. The proposal is called a “cafeteria plan” of packaging benefits, in which each employee gets one a voucher for the same amount with which they can pick and choose from a benefits plan.

Put on your business-owner hat for a moment. Look at your total cost per employee. Parents cost more for businesses so heavily weighting their bennies to families with kids, yet, which employee gets promoted? Unfortunately, the odds are that the guy telling jokes at the water cooler, the married man, yes, one who has the right number of kids does. Oh, and the tall people. So many subjective factors come into play, rather than job performance, but I would bet that all business owners look at employee cost when making staffing decisions. They have to or they wouldn’t be in business.

So, why would childfree want to advocate to make themselves more expensive and less attractive in the workplace? Instead we should shed some light on what a bargain we are, always filling in for the ones who have to dash home for a child’s activity. Use it to our advantage. The cafeteria plan would impact women in the workplace most directly. Many talented working women are also mothers and if employers were forced to offer equal benefits for all employees chances are some of theirs will go away. The economic impact to the business would be too great for it to turn out otherwise in reality.

Ms. Ciaccio, if you want to eat at the cafeteria, go ahead. Our co-workers who have kids are probably eating lunch a sack lunch at their desk. I’ll take my compensation in dollars and cents, and eat across the street at the café with my extra disposable income, and only sign up for as much health coverage as I need.

For more on this topic and others visit Childfree Issues.

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Kate said...

This is a debate that has been a long time in coming, and it's good that it has a chance to hit the public ear this time.

I do not want to use my child-free status to point out what a bargain I am to my employer. What strikes me as unfair is that my time is considered so much less valuable "because I don't have a family." Not only does my benefits package work out to less than half of my married with children co-workers, but I am also expected to work the longer hours, take the overnight trips, and cover for the workers who get to leave for doctor's appointments, school plays, and sick children.

I think that kids are important. I get that. But just as I choose not to have children, with the benefits and challenges that come with it, so do these coworkers of mine choose to become parents. I don't mind helping out a coworker who doesn't take advantage of the situation, but I resent the management mentality that expects me to -- again, because I don't have a "family."

Family is not defined by children.

Tiara Lynn said...

It's interesting, I took this week to post on a related topic in my own blog. What Kate said hits the nail on the head: our time is considered less valuable because we do note have a "family".

The lack of sympathy among parents is astounding. I'm selfish if I don't want to cover for someone who has left early; if I choose to leave *on time* and work any extra hours from my home office; if I merely suggest that a cafeteria plan would be more fair across the board.

"Why should you get more than I do? I have a FAMILY to support?" I have a family to support as well: a husband who's about to be a full-time student, my own pursuit for a master's degree, and my skyrocketing taxes to support the schools that YOUR children attend. I don't complain about this, but you better believe it's a card I'm going to play in this discussion.