Child care and the workplace

A new and coming employee benefit. A movement that still is in its infancy. Hard to document.

That's how many experts describe the status of employer-sponsored child care in the US today.

As social scientists scan the horizon of labor statistics, citing the 80 percent increase in the number of single parents in the past decade and predicting that by 1990 two of every three mothers will be in the paid work force, business and industry are peeking over their cash registers for a long-overdue look at the work force.

The most dramatic change in the US work force, of course, is the number of women who continue to pour into it, at the rate of 1 million a year, an increase of 46 percent since 1970, according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics. As they move into upper management and key supervisory positions, many old patterns and expectations are being challenged.

In the past, women often were in such low-paying jobs that when they left work to care for children and family, they weren't missed. Manufacturing companies planned for high vacancy rates during summer and school holidays, and the working woman generally was construed as someone who was bringing home a second, disposable income. But with today's increasing recruitment and training costs, the cavalier attitude that a company can easily get along without any employee in whom it has invested significant time and money is fading. From a pragmatic point of view, business can no longer afford to ignore the family issues that working parents are bringing to the work place.

In the past two years, there have been more than 43 conferences nationwide on work and family issues. ''The Changing Workforce: The Working Parent as Your Employee,'' a recent day-long seminar sponsored by Associated Industries of Massachusetts, is typical of the agendas for these gatherings. And the keynote topic often is employer-supported child care.

''Companies are beginning to recognize that some of their employees' problems at work may be caused by family issues, but they're not 'buying' child care in big numbers, because of the recession,'' says consultant Dana Friedman. ''We're still in an educating phase.''

Dr. Friedman, a specialist in family and work policy, has just finished a six-month study for the Carnegie Corporation of business attitudes toward employer-sponsored child care. Due to be released in May, the 250-page report will focus on interviews with management and personnel representatives in four cities where businesses have undertaken innovative programs - Boston, Houston, San Francisco, and Minneapolis.

''The gist of the study is that the companies that are taking the first steps are those that have a continuing demand for labor - the high-tech companies, banks, insurance firms, and hospitals,'' Dr. Friedman explains. ''It's in their own self-interest to provide child care as an employee benefit, to recruit new workers, and to keep those they already have.''

In her interviews, Dr. Friedman says she asked company directors to identify their major employee problems and then to explain how they intended to solve them. The problems were common to all: high absenteeism and tardiness, high turnover rates, and skyrocketing claims on various insurance benefits. But when it came to solutions, decisionmakers often were hesitant to commit themselves. Many said they would need more research showing conclusively that child care would reduce turnover rates, for example, before they could commit time and money to help subsidize it.

''The difficulty is that there's very little research,'' Dr. Friedman explains. ''Although common sense tells you that employees' concerns about their children's care during the day are going to impact on their work performance, it's hard to document.''

Some statistics are available, however, and many child-care experts point to a 1979 survey of 58 organizations that was conducted by the University of Wisconsin. The findings included a number of significant benefits for employers who sponsored child care: Lower job turnover 57% Lower absenteeism 72% Improved employee attitudes toward employer 65% Improved employee work attitudes 55% Attracted new employees 88% Improvement in community relations 36% Increased publicity 60%

Since management attitudes were a major focus of the Carnegie study, Dr. Friedman says she looked closely at the age and personal experience of each company's top executives and found that these were the prime factors in determining a company's stance on child care as an employee benefit. ''What characterizes the innovative high-tech firms is the fact that their managers are young people in their early or mid-30s who have spouses in the work force and preschool children,'' she says. ''They're products of the 1960s, and they have a humanitarian approach to the way they conduct business. They're used to dealing with family issues in a natural way.

''One of the reasons that there's more going on with child-care programs in Boston than any other city in the US is that education is its No. 1 industry,'' she continues. ''Both the public and private sector are populated with liberal young people who were educated in Boston and have chosen to stay there and are bringing their attitudes to their workplaces.

''A. Norman Crowder III, vice-president and principal of the management consulting firm of Towers, Perrin, Forster, and Crosby, and head of its Boston office, echoes these findings. ''Child care is a new and coming benefit, and I see some definite increasing interest in it,'' he says. ''But the depth of interest depends on who you talk to. If you talk to 50- and 60-year-old male managers, they're past the stage in their own families where child care is a concern, and besides, it wasn't a part of the culture they grew up in.

''Younger men and women, on the other hand, are more sensitive to the issue. And if they're single parents, they're even more interested.''

As experts in employee benefits, consultants at Towers, Perrin, Forster, and Crosby do a $100 million-a-year business helping companies review their plans for compensating employees. More than 80 percent of their consulting work is with industrial corporations, banks, and utilities, but the firm's list of not-for-profits clients also is growing.

''A company will come to us and say, 'Tell us what's new in benefits, and then we'll see the degree to which we can incorporate them,' '' says Mr. Crowder. He begins a typical review of benefit plans by asking managers what their objectives are, what particular needs they want to meet, what the cost constraints are, and what philosophical point of view they have.

''The traditional view has been, 'We're only interested in you for seven or eight hours a day and don't bring your family concerns into the office.' But that view is changing because the work force is changing.''

After assessing an employer's priorities, Mr. Crowder tries to interview as many employees as possible to find out what their needs are. ''Often it's a surprise to management to find out that the traditional programs they thought were so important are of no apparent value to their employees. For instance, a pension plan is of no interest to a 25-year-old worker who has a working wife and two small children. He wants immediate benefits, like child care support.''

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