CHILD CARE: IN THE BOSS'S BEST INTEREST?

By , American news editor of The Christian Science Monitor

* Eight-year-old Nancy comes from a rural area of North Carolina. She lives alone with her mother, who has a full-time job. After school Nancy would have to return home to an empty house, playing the latchkey child. But her mother's company -- PCA International, a leading processor of color portraits -- allows Nancy to come to work. In the company's child development center she can play and do her homework. Her mother pays $12 a week for this after-school care.

* Six-year-old Mark is a latchkey child during the week. Unlike Nancy, he does come home to an empty house. His mother works in town -- Hartford, Conn. His father is employed by the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company in suburban Bloomfield where Mark's family lives. On holidays -- and this summer -- Mark will go to work with his father and take part in CG's "living and learning" program run by Kinder-Care. It's located in an old barn in a remote corner of the company's 550-acre corporate campus.

* Howard's father makes gaskets in Skokie, Ill. After school, Howard, a fourth grader, is often home alone. But during summer vacation, he will attend the Fel-Fro day camp, a company-run program for the children of company workers. Howard will drive to work with his father and then be bused to a country setting 40 miles away for sports, swimming, and recreational activities. The cost is a nominal $10 a week per family.

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Are Nancy, Mark, and Howard special? You bet they are. They participate in three of no more than a dozen or so industry-run programs for school-age children in the US.

Today there are only 20 to 25 on-site corporate day-care programs across the nation. But most cater to toddlers and preschoolers, as do a scattering of union and government-sponsored child centers, and baby-minding services at hospitals, military bases, and college campuses.

However, pressure now is building on the private sector to respond to parents' growing needs for after-school, vacation, and holiday care for their youngsters.

It is coming from women's groups, whose members today are entering the US work force in larger numbers than ever before; from unions, who are eager to organize female workers; from employed parents (married and single), who are concerned about their unsupervised children; and from day-care lobbyists, who see government funds for child care drying up and who view home cares as inadequate and franchised programs as questionable. The pressure is coming even from the business sector itself, which now is beginning to perceive child care as good public relations and in its own best interests.

But why business? Wouldn't parents prefer that the schools, nonprofit community groups, and neighborhood homes handle their child-care problems?

Perhaps not. Richard Kinney, manager of public affairs research for J. C. Penney, points out that a recent Gallup poll shows that 72 percent of Americans rate business as a "potentially positive force" in helping families. And 92 percent of the delegates of all three sessions of last year's White House Conference on Families recommended that business initiate "family-oriented personnel policies."

How is the private sector responding? Few advocate in-plant day-care centers except for infants. Safety, insurance liability, and transportation factors make the coming and going of school-age children very unattractive to corporate officers. Connecticut General now restricts older-child programs to vacations and holidays for these very reasons. Fel-Pro investigated an on-site program and rejected it. And PCA's after-school clientele is extremely limited, although a company spokesman insists that day care for 180 preschool and kindergarten children has saved $10,000 a year in reduced worker turnover and been worth $30,000 as an aid to recruitment.

But on-site programs are not the only ways for businesses to involve themselves in day care. Alternatives include:

1. Information and referral [I&R]. These services try to match a parent's request for care with programs available in the community. There are thousands of child-care referral groups throughout the US -- mainly in large cities. But, according to Dana Friedman, consultant in family and work policies, only 4 percent are industry related.

Among companies providing I&R services to employees are Steelcase Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich.; Polaroid Corporation of Cambridge, Mass.; and Mountain Bell of Denver, Colo.

In 1970 when Illinois Bell found that no suitable day-care arrangement for its employees was available, it set up its own program, recruiting neighborhood residents as family day-care providers.

Meanwhile, the Child Care Resource Center, a Massachusetts-based I&R Agency, has been approaching local industries and offering its services on a subscription basis. Other independently funded groups, such as Child Care "Switchboard" in San Francisco and the Preschool Association of the West Side (PAWS) in New York, are offering similar expertise to business.

Further, hundreds of firms list family day-care and center-care notices on their bulletin boards. And many personnel departments compile lists to share with new employees.

2. Parent education. Another form of indirect assistance to families at work is parent education. The Texas Family Institute sponsors Bag Lunch Noontime Seminars, gathering together working parents at their places of business to discuss family concerns, including day care. These highly successful seminars began in 1976 as a bicentennial project, and they continue today with support from such leading companies as Southwestern Bell, Houston Gas, J. C. Penney, and Levi Strauss. Similar programs are operating in the St. Louis, Mo., area. During the past year several New England firms have cooperated with Wheelock College to present weekly lunch-hour seminars for working parents on balancing work and family life.

3. Flexible benefits. Many firms now offer the "cafeteria" approach -- giving options for types of life insurance and retirement plans, and numerous savings devices. But TRW Inc. (a diversified company with over 90,000 employees worldwide), Connecticut-based American Can Company, and the Educational Testing Service now all offer comprehensive flexible-compensation programs. Beyond core coverage, an employee can apply "flexible credits."

At American Can, benefit areas include retirement, medical, disability, life, and vacations. A single mother whose time with her children is more important to her at this point than a comprehensive retirement program may apply her credits to vacation days.

4. Vouchers or child-care allowances. When child-care slots are available in a community, an employer or union can subsidize the cost of that care by providing vouchers for X amount of dollars that can be used at a licensed or registered center. Polaroid Corporation and Ford Foundation (based in New York) are using this devise. Both companies reimburse a portion of the costs on a sliding scale, based on the income of the worker-parent.

Polaroid's community relations manager, Verna Brookins, says this program appears to have lowered absenteeism and perhaps improved worker performance. But she admits that "day care has not been a top priority --pushed [anywhere] like health care and other benefits."

Is the voucher system likely to catch fire with industry? Several firms across the nation are looking into it, says a spokesman for the Day Care Council of America. In fact, DCA now is conducting a confidential study for a worldwide firm based in New England, which is considering alternative involvements in this area. Several union groups are doing something similar. For example, the Service Employees International union is now probing day-care possibilities for workers at Kaiser. A report is due this summer.

5. Flexitime, the idea of flexible work hours, originated in Germany in the mid-1950s and spread throughout Europe, Japan, and Canada. But this alternative work-schedule concept didn't spread to the United States until the late 1960s. Some estimates indicate that between 2.5 million and 3.5 million American workers now work flexible hours. Finance, transportation, and service industries favor it more than others.

Most common types of flexitime include one plan where workers can arrive and depart any time within a set period at the start and end of the working day. All company employees are expected to be on the job during certain "core" hours. Another option allows workers to "punch in" a certain number of hours a week -- but with maximum flexibility as to which hours these could be. A third, called "task contracting," hires workers to achieve a certain goal with no reference to hours.

Most companies that use flexitime indicate they find it successful in increasing morale, reducing stress and employee turnover, and helping workers fulfill personal and family needs.

Until recently, such flexibility has not bee evaluated in terms of child care.But a newly completed study of federal employees in the Department of Commerce who use flexible schedules has tried to determine whether such flexibility allowed workers more time with their children and families and reduced stresses.

Halycone Bohen, director of the Corporate Policies Project of the Children's Defense Fund -- conductor of the surveys -- says results show that flexitime did not increase the amount of time workers spent with their families. Mrs. Bohen conclusion is that flexible schedules are still a good road for companies to take in promoting more worker time with children and families. But this alone won't solve the problem.

Georgetown University Prof. Stanley Nollen -- who studies the effects of flexitime on productivity -- agrees. Professor Nollen says that the "conflict between home life and work life continues to grow." And he favors increasing options which would give workers more "control" over their life at work.

In addition to flexitime, hundreds of firms are experimenting with shared jobs. Several banks and insurance companies are reportedly experimenting with work-at-home programs. This is becoming popular in "cottage type" industries and in computer-related work, says Fred Foulkes, management professor at Boston University.

According to a new US Department of Labor report conducted by the Women's Bureau, industry can assist local programs to deliver their child-care services -- by donating expert assistance in accounting, tax, advertising, and management techniques.

Several banks have underwritten child care through loan programs. Citibank, Bankers Trust Company, and Chase Manhattan -- all of New York -- have had special policies for providing loans for construction and renovation of child-care facilities in New York City.

And the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union contributed funds for planning the development of Children's Village, a child-care center that serves garment workers in Philadelphia.

The Women's Bureau urges industry to buy slots in existing community child care -- guaranteeing local providers with income. Businesses are also encouraged to form a consortium in geographical areas to develop and support child-care centers for their employee groups.

Some of this is already being done. A center in Coon Rapids, Minn., jointly serves workers of a hospital and a college. And the Government Center Child Care Corporation in Boston directs an employee-initiated center that serves employees of several federal agencies.

While the question lingers whether child care is good for business, there is strong evidence that child care can be good business.

Franchised "providers" have boomed in the past decade. The leader is Kinder-Care, with 700 day-care centers in the US and Canada now serving 72,000 preschool and school-age youngsters in 32 states. Its annual revenues are over between $37 and $52 a week. Parents can qualify for a federal income tax credit of up to $400 a year for care of one dependent child; $800 for two.

Some day-care professionals frown on child-minding as a moneymaking enterprise. But Kinder-Care's top executive, Perry Mendel, told the Child Care Information Exchange in an interview: "I don't consider profit a dirty word. It is vital that we operate at a profit if we are to bring new programs into existence."

Meanwhile, corporations not primarily in the child-care business continue to tiptoe toward involvement.

"Very few companies want to be first [in day care]," points out Dean Henary Morgan of the Boston University School of Management. "But very many of them want to be a close second."

Discussing his firm's decision to provide on-site day care for preschoolers, Amory Houghton Jr., chairman of Corning Glass Works, points out: "Big corporations do big things right. Great corporations do little things right."

Next: Day care: a global perspective

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