Better child-care options top working parents' wish list

Consider two scenarios, exactly a year apart: In Scenario 1, it is January 1986. A young mother -- call her Mrs. A. -- is reluctantly returning to work just six weeks after the birth of her second child. Her employer has denied her request for a longer unpaid leave and refused to allow a slightly reduced work schedule.

Her husband's employer also scoffed at the idea of paternity leave. So Mrs. A. will take her tiny baby and the couple's 3-year-old to a day-care center near their suburban apartment, then commute to her job in the city.

Scenario 1 is sobering actuality -- the way things are.

Now flip the calendar to January 1987 and Scenario 2. Another woman, Mrs. B. -- the mother of a 3-year-old and also a 6-week-old infant -- still has two more months at home before her maternity leave ends. When she returns to work, her husband will begin a two-month paternity leave to care for the baby.

After that Mrs. B. will take both children to a new day-care center in her downtown office building, where she will be able to visit them at noon. In addition, her employer has agreed to a one-year transition period, reducing her workweek by one-fifth, from 40 hours to 32, and prorating salary and benefits.

These three conditions -- parental leave, nearby day care, and a transition period at work -- constitute every working parent's wish list.

What would turn this 1987 scenario -- now largely just a daydream -- into a reality?

The biggest change could come with passage of the Parental and Disability Leave Act, a bill now under consideration in the United States House of Representatives.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado, calls for giving parents -- mothers or fathers -- a minimum of 18 weeks of unpaid leave to care for newborn, adopted, or seriously ill children.

The need for a minimum national standard for child-care leave has been documented by a blue-ribbon advisory panel at Yale's Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy. After a year-long study the committee recently recommended a six-month leave for child care, with partial income replacement (75 percent of salary) for three months.

Ironically, just one day after the panel announced its recommendations, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to block state laws that allow more generous leave benefits for pregnant employees than for other employees. Such benefits, the department argued, are discriminatory. Yet in fact, the Parental and Disability Leave Act would also provide job protection for any employee -- parent or nonparent -- who needs up to 26 weeks of disability leave.

The second promise of Scenario 2 -- on-site or near-site child care -- seems even more remote at the moment. The gap between the need for affordable, high-quality child care and its availability is growing in almost every state in the nation, according to a report released last month by the Children's Defense Fund. Because of a reduction in federal support, 22 states have less to spend for child care than in 1981, and 24 states are serving fewer children.

Moreover, only about 1,800 employers out of 6 million nationwide now offer some type of child-care service -- financial assistance, corporate day-care centers, or information and referral.

Still, there are pilot programs that offer practical, encouraging examples. One of the most innovative approaches comes from San Francisco, which recently passed a law requiring developers to provide space or money for child-care centers in new and renovated downtown skyscrapers.

The third wish of Scenario 2 -- modifying a new parent's work schedule for a limited time -- may be the simplest and least expensive demand on the list. Management would pay only for the hours an employee actually worked. And although shorter hours would mean less income for the working parents, the reduced work week would also lower their child-care expenses.

Such an arrangement could also benefit latchkey children, now euphemistically called ``children in self-care'' by some groups. Authorities on later stages of child care point out that having a parent at home an hour or two earlier would alleviate the anxiety, boredom, and loneliness that beset some young children who must stay by themselves after school. They also note that it could reduce the number of pregnancies that occur when teen-agers are home alone in the afternoon.

Evidence continues to mount that the current scattershot approach to parental leave and child care remains inadequate for many working parents. Check the titles of two books being published this spring: ``The Crisis of the Working Mother'' and ``The Working Parent Dilemma.'' Check, too, the findings of several recent surveys:

According to a new study at Boston University, the stress of balancing work and family responsibilities is the most significant factor contributing to depression among employees.

One-third of the employees surveyed, both male and female, reported significant difficulties with managing family responsibilities. Over 40 percent felt their job interferes with home, while a quarter felt home interferes with their job.

The study also found that non-parent workers believed the company to be sensitive to their needs, while parent workers, both single and married, felt the company was less sensitive to their needs.

In another study, described in a forthcoming book, ``Stress in Organizations,'' 45 percent of 9,000 employees surveyed reported burnout at work. One possible cause, according to the study: employers who do not provide support to employees -- especially employees doubling as parents.

Finally, a Harris survey released late last month reported that since 1973 the median number of hours worked by Americans had increased by 20 percent, despite the talk of shorter workweeks. The survey also reported that the amount of leisure time available to the average person dropped 32 percent. No wonder frazzled parents who play the role of ``One-Minute Manager'' at work are settling for ``One-Minute Bedtime Stories'' with their children at home.

Whatever is done or not done about the wish list of working parents during the year ahead, the problem is slowly coming into clearer perspective, and it goes more widely and deeply than previously thought. Some child-care authorities say that instead of talking about working parents, we should speak of working families. For children are affected by corporate policies, good and bad. Nearly half of mothers with children under the age of 1 are in the labor force, a 95 percent increase since 1970. And by the end of this decade, there will be about 4.8 million more children with working mothers than in 1980, according to the Children's Defense Fund.

For millions of parents, especially those heading the single-parent families that make up 25 percent of the population, a job is not a choice but a necessity. Doing that job well becomes more likely when concerns about the safety and well-being of children are minimized. Thus benefits that appear to be pro-family become pro-business as well -- a matter of corporate self-interest. Social costs translate into economic costs, becoming tomorrow's bottom line.

There may be flashier and more publicized goals on the agenda for American business for 1986. But there are few more far-reaching challenges than the challenge for employers and employees to seek fair, practical ways to accommodate the often conflicting, yet equally valid demands of both work and home.

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