Sunday, May 26, 2024

Family Forward NC looks for ways to improve children’s health

 Emily Swartzlander helped found Family Forward NC last February as a way to improve North Carolina children’s health by encouraging and offering options for businesses to adopt family-friendly practices.

When Emily Swartzlander was on maternity leave from Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina three years ago, she couldn’t help feeling lucky. She had eight weeks off work to focus on her and her baby’s health and to prepare for their new life together. But she knew everyone wasn’t as fortunate. Only 11% of private-sector workers in the South Atlantic region have access to paid family leave, according to N.C. Families Care, a statewide coalition focused on family-friendly workplaces.

“I was really aware of the fact that I was lucky, and that there are a lot of working parents that did not have the kind of employer I worked for and those kind of benefits in place to really feel supported,” Swartzlander says.

So last February, she helped start Family Forward NC, an initiative of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation with founding sponsorship from Blue Cross to improve children’s health and well-being and keep North Carolina’s businesses competitive.

She began researching availability of benefits and the challenges facing working parents on a daily basis. “I got really drawn into all the data that not only shows how supportive benefits and practices are good for parents but also how they support child health and well-being outcomes.”

Family Forward NC offers resources to companies around the state looking to adopt family-friendly business practices. Its newly released Guide to Family Forward Workplaces features suggestions and benefits including paid leave, flexible work hours, telecommuting, pregnancy accommodations and child care. Ninety-four percent of North Carolina employees say family-friendly benefits give employers a competitive edge in attracting and retaining workers, according to a report from Family Forward NC.

The guide also highlights companies in the state that have successfully implemented family-friendly benefits in the workplace. An example is Aeroflow Healthcare, a medical-equipment provider that expanded its paid maternity-leave policy from two to six weeks and offers two weeks of paid paternity leave for fathers. The Asheville-based company, which employs about 400 nationwide, also provides reimbursement for adoption costs of up to $5,000 per child; reimbursement of up to $300 for a birth or postpartum doula for families with a newborn, newly adopted or newly placed foster child; free breast pumps and breastfeeding supplies for eligible employees; and free diapers for the first year of a child’s life or from the date of adoption or foster placement.

“I haven’t felt the need to look for something else, and I have a lot of friends who are mothers and, depending on their employer, they are looking elsewhere, or they have to leave their job completely, which means they don’t get to follow their career path,” says Megan Prestridge, a mom and breastpump specialist at Aeroflow. “I feel like [Aeroflow] values me, and I feel like they value me as an employee and as a mom.”

Family Forward NC planned to host its first-ever summit in Raleigh on April 1. Business and community leaders from across the state will gather for a day of speakers and panel discussions, including Blue Cross CEO Patrick Conway and Brigid Schulte, director of The Better Life Lab and Good Life Initiative at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

“We know that family-friendly workplace benefits are not only good for business,” Swartzlander says. “They help attract and retain talent, improve productivity, and improve morale and loyalty. But they’re also really good for child health and well-being outcomes, like improving infant mortality rates, improving IQ levels and lowering diabetes.”

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