More Businesses Now Help With Child Care

CHILD-CARE advocates and researchers say that over the past decade there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of American businesses providing child-care assistance. The growth has been ``astronomic,'' says Daniel Dreyer, research assistant in the Work and Family Center of the Conference Board, a nonprofit research firm that tracks business trends. The number of employers in the United States offering child-care assistance rose from 110 in 1978 to 5,400 in 1990, Mr. Dreyer says.

Benefits range from on-site day-care centers to day-care tuition subsidies to employer contracts with referral services. But the percentage of participating companies is still small, given that there are about 6 million businesses in the US.

In 1989, John Hancock Financial Services in Boston surveyed its employees and found that 75 percent of those with children aged 3 to 12 had problems finding and affording high-quality child care.

In response, the company last fall opened its own 41,000 square-foot child-care center (including two outdoor playgrounds) at a cost of $3 million. The center has room for 200 children and boasts state-of-the art equipment.

``If you can't address this kind of need ... it causes people to make decisions they don't want to make - like not working, accepting a job closer to home, or working part-time,'' says David D'Alessandro, senior executive vice president of the retail sector. Hancock also pays more than $1 million a year in subsidies for enrollment. ``It's an incredible recruitment tool,'' he adds.

A stumbling block to companies that want to provide child-care help is ``ignorance of their options,'' says Stuart Cleinman of the Massachusetts Child Care Resource Center. Some officials say that because they can't afford a day-care center, ``there's nothing they can do,'' he says.

But Mr. Cleinman says helping employees with child care has many facets, ranging from flexible work schedules to school-vacation recreation programs to day-care tuition assistance. Massachusetts's Executive Office of Economic Affairs recently published a booklet, ``The Family Care Guide,'' that explains employers' options.

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