Corporate world responds to increasing day-care needs

If you're a working parent with young children, go to work for a high-technology company with a young president, or a family-owned or family-related business.

That's the word from Dana Friedman, a specialist in early childhood education who has worked as a lobbyist and a consultant on family and work policy.

Of the 600 employers in the United States today that Dr. Friedman has identified as providing some form of child-care support, the vast majority fit into these molds, she said at a recent conference on parenting sponsored by the Washington, D.C., Junior League.

''In Silicon Valley (California), a lot of these firms are being run by 35 -year-old presidents with working wives and preschoolers, so they're very responsive to the needs of day care,'' Dr. Friedman says. Growing businesses such as those in the computer field also have the funds to be responsive, and a need to compete for scarce, well-trained workers, she adds.

Companies that deal in family products (like General Mills or Stride Rite Shoes) tend to ''care more about their image as supporters of the family,'' Dr. Friedman believes, and family-owned businesses ''tend to have the family-support ethics built in.''

These 600 employers are pioneering a road Dr. Friedman expects most corporations to travel in the future. The corporate world, once the province of economics only, is now looked to ''for answers to everything from air pollution to executive stress,'' Dr. Friedman points out, and a need for good day care is starting to show up on management agendas.

''Part of this is simply due to the fact that parents are less able to provide for their children during the day, either because they're working or because they're single,'' she says, ''while families are getting smaller, so there are fewer older children available to help care for the younger siblings.''

The increased need for day care forces many parents to turn to the community for support - ''to AFDC, Title I, WIC, and so on. You might not know what these things stand for, but believe me, (US Budget Director) David Stockman does,'' she says. ''All of them have been cut, which puts even more pressure on the corporate world to respond.''

Providing on-site day care for employees' children is only one response these employers have made to their workers' day-care needs, ''and it's not necessarily the best. Most people would like an option of where to take their children, so many employers are providing day-care vouchers that can be redeemed in many different centers,'' she says.

A recently passed law - the Dependent Care Assistance Plan - makes it easy for corporations to provide such financial support, since contributions it makes to employees for child care are now nontaxable. ''This can fit in neatly with a flexible benefits package,'' the consultant says.

Other businesses have responded to the need for day care by giving parents the start-up money to organize and run their own centers, or by purchasing a certain number of slots in nearby centers for their workers' family members. Oscar Mayer did this for its early shift workers, Dr. Friedman says, when many of them had difficulty getting day care at 5 a.m.

Such corporate financial support may be the ideal, but Marie Oser, founder of the Texas Institute for Families, says, ''If there's one issue we should go to the carpet on with corporations, it's personal leave'' - time for employees to take off to attend family needs. ''If companies checked, they'd probably find people taking this time off anyway and lying about it, calling in sick. So you may as well give it to them,'' she believes. ''In most cases, it's a matter of semantics,'' she says, since by changing the term ''sick leave'' to ''personal leave,'' the days of paid leave do not increase.

Other short-term, low-cost benefits employers might give parents include organizing an information and referral service for employees seeking day care (Gillette paid a child-care resource center in Cambridge, Mass., to provide this for its employees), or running parent education seminars at the corporation.

Ms. Oser, who works with schools and corporations in the Houston area to provide after-school care to the children of working parents, says she and other day-care advocates have spent the last decade ''talking to personnel people who were concerned and powerless'' about this issue.

Although many corporations are incorporating some benefits that support the family, such as flexible time or personal leave, she believes ''there are still employers with unwritten policies not to hire parents of preschoolers.''

As Dr. Friedman puts it, ''Many of the top executives had mothers who gave them milk and cookies at 3 o'clock, and wives who gave their kids milk and cookies at 3 o'clock.''

But Ms. Oser points to signs of hope for those wanting more corporate support in this area. She and representatives from Health and Human Resources' Office of Children, Youth, and Families have been invited by the White House Private Sector Group to speak this year to chief executive officers from corporations on day care.

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