A popular perk for parents: backup child care

For many working parents, when a day care center suddenly closes or the nanny phones at 6 a.m. to say she can't make it in, the delicate balance between work and family can topple like a stack of blocks.

Often the only option is to take a vacation or personal day and stay home with the child. But for a growing number of employees, the solution comes in the form of "backup child care."

It's the fastest growing segment of the child-care business, says Rosemary Jordano, CEO and founder of the Boston-based ChildrenFirst Inc., which provides backup child care services to more than 250 companies in a dozen major cities across the US.

According to a recent survey by management consulting firm Hewitt Associates, about 15 percent of corporations offer backup care as an employee benefit. By contrast, about 10 percent of companies have full-time care, which experts say is "cost prohibitive" to all but the largest corporations.

Employees with backup care generally get 20 days a year and pay a nominal fee to use a facility - which may be dedicated to one or a group of businesses - when their regular arrangements go awry.

Working families understand that they have to arrange their own full-time child care, Ms. Jordano notes. "What [they] can't foresee are these urgent needs or the last-minute breakdowns." It's no wonder, then, that backup child care tops the list of benefits most desired by respondents in a recent survey by Working Mother Magazine, Jordano notes.

Dynegy Inc., an international energy and communications company based in Houston, offers backup care in its effort to attract and retain workers. The company - which employs about 2,000 people, many of whom have children under 13 years of age - first considered providing its own onsite child-care center, notes Andrea Lang, vice president of human resources. But corporate chiefs quickly realized that only 25 to 30 employees would be able to make use of the facility. So in January, the company turned to backup care and partnered with ChildrenFirst.

"It provides opportunities for all of our employees," stresses Ms. Lang, noting that already more than 100 employees have used the service. Backup child care "reduces absenteeism and increases productivity," she says.

A backup center in Houston allowed Cynthia Gonzales, manager of online banking services for Bank One, to stay on the job when devastating storms swept through the city recently. Floods sent three feet of water coursing through the home of her mother-in-law, where Ms. Gonzales' two children stay during the workday.

If it hadn't been for the backup child care, offered free to bank employees, "I would have had to take some days off," she says. With 17 days of care still available under the plan, Gonzales says her mind is at ease for the rest of the year. "I love it, it's right across the street from my building," she notes. "I can use my vacation for Thanksgiving and Christmas."

Jordano predicts that backup care will eventually become a universal company benefit, like health insurance. "This is child-care insurance," she says, adding that businesses don't just offer backup care because it's a "nice thing to do."

The return on a company's investment is from $2 to $5 for every $1 spent, she adds. "It's in the best interest of the children; it's in the best interest of the parent and of the corporation. It's one of those unique places where everybody's interests line up."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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