Protesters put spotlight on child care. Harvard employees voice concerns heard across US

Lori Kelley, a secretary at Harvard Law School, pushes a baby stroller with a large hand-lettered sign on it: ``Day care is a big issue for small people.'' Ever since she returned to work eight weeks ago after the birth of her daughter, Krista, Mrs. Kelley has been unable to find regular, affordable child care. As a temporary arrangement, her mother cares for the infant on some days. Her husband, whose hours are irregular, takes over on others.

``I have to play it day by day,'' Kelley says. ``The day-care centers are full, and the prices are outrageous.''

To call attention to the challenges she and other families are facing, Kelley - stroller and all - joined a group of Harvard employees and their children late last week for a lunch-hour demonstration protesting the lack of affordable child care at Harvard.

Only seven day-care centers exist at the university to serve a total of 290 children, according to Kris Rondeau, chief organizer of the proposed Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, sponsors of the event. The average cost for infants is $780 a month, she says. For toddlers, it is $631 a month.

Yet even if more day-care spaces were available, the group argues, most of the university's 3,700 clerical and technical workers would be unable to afford them. Average wages for these employees, 85 percent of whom are women, are $17,000 a year, according to university figures.

``We don't single out Harvard as a bad employer,'' says Ms. Rondeau. ``The issues Harvard workers face are the same issues working women all over the country face.''

Those issues have become a priority for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), with which the proposed Harvard union is affiliated. Earlier this week, AFSCME issued a call for a national child-care policy, noting that only 3,000 out of 6 million United States employers supported the child-care needs of their workers last year.

As part of its ``Blueprint for Child Care,'' the union intends to support federal legislation, to be proposed later this month, for a national child-care policy. It also wants to move child care onto the agenda of numerous state legislatures at next year's sessions.

A national opinion survey conducted for AFSCME by a Boston-based polling firm finds that 71 percent of working Americans believe the government ``should develop policies to help make child-care services more available and affordable.'' In addition, the survey reports, 29 percent of all working parents with children aged 12 and under have given up a job or promotion because of lack of child care.

``Somehow we're all coping,'' says Jeanne Lafferty, a former Harvard employee and the mother of a two-year-old daughter. ``But just because we're coping doesn't mean it's good.''

As Ms. Lafferty and an estimated 200 other participants circled the red brick plaza in front of Holyoke Center, they were surrounded by balloons, diaper bags, and peanut-butter sandwiches. And as they pushed infants in strollers and held toddlers by the hand, they carried placards bearing messages such as ``Day care at a decent price,'' ``Dads for day care,'' and ``Another kid for day care.''

They also sang nursery rhymes updated for the '80s. To the tune of ``London Bridge Is Falling Down,'' they offered these lyrics: ``Waiting lists are far too long, far too long, far too long/ Waiting lists are far too long/ We need day care.''

At Harvard, Rondeau explains, 200 children remain on waiting lists, with ``a stack of applications eight inches high.''

As Lori Kelley wheeled five-month-old Krista around the plaza in her stroller, she talked about how the lack of child care affects her family.

``I'm scared to think of what might happen to me because I don't have anyone to take care of her,'' she says. ``I have to work, yet I have to take care of my child.

``I've been absent a lot. My professors are sympathetic to the problem, but it's spoiling my personnel file, I think. Today I'm bringing Krista back to the office. I'm sure that won't go over too well.''

One of the fathers taking part in the demonstration, David Williams, a media technician and an eight-year employee of the university, expresses similar frustration. One day-care center that had an opening for his 14-month-old son charged $825 a month - an amount Mr. Williams and his wife could not afford. As a compromise solution, the couple has a part-time arrangement with an in-home provider for $30 a day, three days a week.

Many parents are hopeful that the proposed Family and Medical Leave Act now before Congress, which mandates 18 weeks of unpaid parental leave after the birth or adoption of a child, will mark an important first step in bringing family issues to the forefront.

For now, though, the need is so great in some communities that ``pregnant women are signing up their unborn children at day-care centers to assure that they'll have a space when the kids are of day-care age,'' says Cynthia McManus, a business agent with AFSCME in Boston.

Although Ms. McManus believes the situation is improving ``slowly - very slowly,'' she thinks the problem goes beyond questions of money and space. ``It's a commitment that is lacking,'' she says, ``rather than resources.''

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