Chicago’s historic Ferrara Candy Co. differentiates its manufacturing roots, expanding parental leave and offering scholarships to employees’ children; how do startups respond?

BY SANDRA GUY 

sandraguykolina@gmail.com

Chicago’s 109-year-old Ferrara Candy Co. is upping the ante for local employers and its manufacturing rivals by expanding its maternity-leave policy to grant new parents full pay for two weeks after their new child’s birth, adoption or foster care placement.

The maker of Lemonheads, Red Hots, Trolli, Brach’s and Black Forest decided to go beyond federally mandated minimums that grant women only a portion of their pay during short-term disability when they have babies.

To implement the policy, Ferrara Candy Co. supplements the short-term disability pay that women take when they have babies so that the new moms receive 100 percent of their pay for the period of time they receive disability pay, which is normally six to eight weeks.

Under the old policy, new moms received regular short-term disability pay of 60 percent of their salaries.

New parents may also continue to take unpaid Family and Medical Leave for up to 90 days (FMLA leave runs concurrent with short-term disability and parental leave).

Also under the new policy, Ferrara Candy Co. lets new parents — both mom and dad — work part-time for their first two weeks back at work, helping them reacclimate to the working world. 

The expanded policy covers employees in both corporate and hourly jobs; the latter comprise 70 percent of Ferrara’s workforce.

Michael Goldwasser, chief human resources officer for Oakbrook Terrace-based Ferrara, said the expanded policy had no connection to the nation’s full-employment competitiveness for workers; rather, a female executive who had just become a mom pointed out that the old policy was less than ideal.

Sandi Santa Ana, category management director, had researched the parental leave policies of technology and other consumer packaged goods companies, and suggested how to improve the situation.

“[Expansive parental leave policies are] something you see at service and technology companies, but not so much in manufacturing,” said Goldwasser, who joined Ferrara just 18 months ago from online travel agency and search engine Orbitz Worldwide. Indeed, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Monday that he is taking a two-month-long paternity leave when his second daughter is born -- the same amount of time he took off with his firstborn.

“We do it because we feel we have a responsibility to support our employees as they’re going through major transitions in life,” he said of his own and Ferrara CEO Todd Siwak’s support for the new policy.

Besides Ferrara’s headquarters, the candy company employs a total of 1,000 in the Chicago area at a distribution center in Bolingbrook; a research-and-development center in Maywood, and two manufacturing plants—one in Bellwood and the other in Forest Park. The company employs another 500 in the United States and 1,300 in Mexico.

The company also has created a scholarship program to award $50,000 spread among 10 employees’ children to help pay their way to a technical school or to a two-year or four-year college or university. The eligible employees must work at jobs lower than the vice president’s level. The first group of winners, announced in July, include students who intend to study law, dentistry, fashion, engineering and a variety of other fields.

“We would love for these kids to come back (to work at Ferrara Candy), but that would be serendipitous,” Goldwasser said.

With the country at arguably “full” employment, how should startup companies compete with larger, more established businesses that grant these generous benefits?

First, so-called “full” employment isn’t really the case. In Chicago, 83 percent of working-age whites have jobs, compared with 56 percent of working-age African-Americans, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of American Community Survey data. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2017/02/27/employment-by-race-and-place-snapshots-of-america/

Yet, despite such systemic dilemmas, a new survey of nearly 2,000 parents with children 18 and younger living at home shows the top reason parents seek flexible work options is their desire for work-life balance. That was the response of 81 percent of the parents surveyed, according to FlexJobs, an online service for professionals seeking telecommuting, flexible schedule, part-time and freelance jobs.

Other top responses in favor of flexible work options included time savings (44 percent), avoiding commuting stress (41 percent) and cost savings (39%). Working parents, who could choose more than one response, considered work-life balance (81 percent) and flexible schedules (76 percent) more important than salary (72 percent) when evaluating a job prospect.

That’s where entrepreneurs and startups can leverage their strong points—and offering the much-in-demand flexibility every working day of their workers’ lives.

Indeed, startups and entrepreneurial companies are starting to offer more than comfy couches, ping-pong tables and free food and coffee, with newer trends including offering sabbaticals, unlimited time off and help paying off employees’ tuition debt, said Jon Shanahan, CEO of Businessolver, a human-resources benefits tech company.

That means startups are exploring broadening their traditional value proposition — that employees must suffer at the start and pay their dues for the potential opportunity to strike it rich later, said Brian Kropp, human resources practice leader at Gartner research firm.

Research shows that productivity declines dramatically after 35 hours in a workweek for people who do intellectual work, such as designers, software coders, product innovators and financial-services strategists, Kropp said.

So startups are experimenting with ideas such as job-sharing and five-hour workdays.