April 02, 2001 12:00 PM

As an assistant state attorney in Miami for several years, Steve Bustamante often found himself working on days colleagues with children got off. “More often than not I was assigned homicide duty on a holiday,” says Bustamante, 44, who is now in private practice. “I think it was because I was single.”

For Columbus, Ohio, technical analyst Nicole Nicholson, 24, working with an office administrator with a young son meant having to answer her phones and stuff her envelopes when the woman left early to pick up her child from school. “We were stuck doing her work,” says Nicholson. “It was pretty much accepted.”

Not anymore, if Elinor Burkett gets her way. With her controversial book The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless, the outspoken 54-year-old history professor turned author is leading the charge against what she says is a major, if long overlooked, inequity. Childless workers, she argues, often have to cover for their child-rearing colleagues while getting fewer benefits. Then there are the tax breaks and subsidies that, she adds, help parents most. “If we’re trying to make sure that no child goes to bed hungry or grows up without a book of his own or a bedroom without rats for roommates,” writes Burkett, “we’re not going to make much of a dent by giving six-digit-income suburbanites $500 tax credits for their kids.”

The gripes of the child-free, as they often call themselves, extend beyond the workplace. “I was once at a very fancy restaurant, and there was a family there with very young children who were not being controlled in any way,” says Burkett, whose proposal for adult-only neighborhoods has raised some hackles. “I said something to the mother, and she called me a child hater.” Nothing, Burkett protests, could be further from the truth. For her next book, in fact, she spent most of the 1999-2000 school year reporting on the 1,000 high school students in Prior Lake, Minn., some of whom she still sees. “I like kids,” she says, then adds, “I might not like them as much if I had them.”

The younger of two daughters of Bernard Cohen, the owner of a Philadelphia woodworking business, and his homemaker wife, Anna (both now deceased), Burkett knew from g an early age that she didn’t want chilldren; when she turned 30, she finally I found a doctor who would perform a tubal ligation. It was the 1996 presidential campaign and its emphasis on the needs of “working families” that got Burkett’s dander up (“You realize they don’t mean you,” she says) and also got her writing. She was met with hostility from the start. Feminist Betty Friedan yelled at her over the phone for “trying to pit women against women,” recalls Burkett, then hung up.

Much of the public response has been equally rancorous. Recently a man called in to a radio talk show that Burkett was on to scream at her. “He said he was glad I wasn’t contributing to the gene pool because we didn’t need more people like me,” she says. Still, Burkett, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1993 but is now cancer-free, savors debating informed opponents. “It’s intellectually challenging,” she says. Her husband of six years, former teacher Dennis Gaboury, 49, would agree. “She loves a good fight,” he says.

Many among the child-free are grateful that she’s willing to wage it. And with 63 percent of America’s 140 million-strong workforce without children under 18, the movement is gathering steam. In 1984 Jerry Steinberg, a college teacher in Vancouver, founded No Kidding!, a social club for the childless. Today there are 58 chapters in the U.S., Canada and Africa. “Burkett’s book has brought out of the closet an issue that has bothered a lot of child-free people for a long time,” says Steinberg, 56. “Inequity does exist.”

Even among some friends and family members of the childless. “Because I have no children and all my neighbors do,” says Steve Toth, 46, a self-employed repairman in Virginia Beach, Va., “I am rarely invited to social functions they have. I feel isolated and left out.”

But some say that Burkett has overstated the case. “I did a little poking around in the statistics and found that only 46 percent of large companies have family-friendly benefits, and small companies have even less,” says economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, 55, who is chair of the National Parenting Association and a mother of five. “This fantasy that somehow parents live in the lap of luxury and have this plethora of perks is wrong.” Besides, says Candace Korasick, 32, a doctoral student in Columbia, Mo., who is married and says she does not want kids, “some of the policies billed as family-friendly I think of as woman-friendly.”

In fact, recent changes in some workplaces suggest that parents who fought for benefits such as flextime and job sharing paved the road for all employees. “A lot of benefits—telecommuting, elder-care referral—are not exclusive to those who have kids,” insists Angela Georgallis, spokeswoman for the Society for Human Resource Management, an education, research and advocacy group with more than 150,000 members. For instance, Eastman Kodak Company, which employs 43,200 people in the U.S. and is deemed a model employer by Burkett, allows personal leaves for any reason. “Early on we opened it up,” says spokesman Paul Allen. “Why should this just be for parents to take care of kids?”

That’s a philosophy that Burkett, who lives with her husband in a house he designed and built on their 226-acre property in Hobart, N.Y., embraces. “I’m not saying to stop the family-friendly revolution,” she says. “We just have to change the definition of the word ‘family’ to include the concept that everybody has the right to a life.”

Julie K.L. Dam

Nancy Day in Hobart, Vickie Bane in Vancouver, Susan Gray Gose in Washington, D.C., Trine Tsouderos in Chicago and Siobhan Morrissey in Miami

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