An after-school struggle to juggle kids and work

A study shows that the workplace productivity of US parents suffers when they are worried about what their kids are doing after school.

It's 3 p.m. Do you know where your children are? Every weekday afternoon, Claire Celsi faces that question as she thinks about her two teenagers, ages 13 and 14. With no after-school program available for them, she must keep tabs on their whereabouts and activities from her office.

"It's a huge balancing act," says Ms. Celsi, a publicist in Des Moines, Iowa. "I make them call me from our home phone, so I know they're home."

Millions of working parents share similar concerns as they watch the clock and hope that their after-school arrangements are in place. For their employers, these distractions can take a huge toll on productivity, according to a new study by Catalyst and the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

"The good news is that many parents have good support and good programs in place to help them," says Laura Sabattini, a researcher at Catalyst. "But many have concerns about what's going on [after school]. Calling children or even just being worried can lead to distraction at work."

Despite progress, many communities still face a serious shortage of affordable, high-quality after-school programs. More than 14 million students between kindergarten and 12th grade take care of themselves after school, says Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance in Washington, D.C. That includes 40,000 kindergartners and almost 4 million middle school students in grades 6 to 8.

More than a third of the US labor force consists of parents of minor children. Almost three-fourths of those children are between 5 and 18 years old. Two- thirds of these parents are employed full-time. The gap between the time school lets out at 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. and the time most full-time employed parents get home at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. adds up to 15 to 25 hours a week.

Researchers call this challenge Parental Concern over After School Time, or PCAST. It affects workers from the factory floor to the executive suite, mothers and fathers alike.

"They may be called at work or have to leave work for any disruption of their after-school care arrangements," the Catalyst report explains. "Just worrying about [that] possibility may affect productivity – and thus the employer's bottom line." In one study, more than half the women and almost a third of the men said that work/family stress affected their ability to concentrate on the job.

Parental concern is greater when children are older – from grades 6 through 12 – because this age group is more likely to be unsupervised. "Researchers find that teenagers don't like to go to after-school programs," says Ms. Sabattini.

Supervised programs for teens often do not even exist, says Celsi, a single parent. Those that do exist, she finds, often serve at-risk children. "At some point my kids became aware of that and wouldn't go. They were perceived as at-risk kids, poor kids."

The challenge, she says, is to find something acceptable to the child and affordable for parents.

Many programs are funded through a combination of federal, state, local, foundation, and private monies. Some cost parents between $1,000 and $2,000 a year, Ms. Grant says. Yet federal support is eroding. "If we were funded at the level President Bush signed into law [in the No Child Left Behind Act], we'd be at $2.5 billion a year," she says. "Federal funding has been frozen since 2002. Twice there's been an across-the-board cut. Our high was $1 billion. Now it's down to $981 million." Nearly three-quarters of those polled in November want Congress to increase after-school funding, according to the Afterschool Alliance.

Grant finds widespread misunderstandings about what after-school care includes. "Far too many people still think it's just child care. It gives kids all sorts of opportunities. It includes homework help, tutoring, hands-on learning, physical fitness, internships, and apprenticeships."

In Andover, N.J., Claudia Avgerinopoulus knows the advantages. Her children, ages 8 and 10, attend an after-school program at their school, run by the YMCA. Her husband picks them up at 6 p.m., when it ends.

When schools close, as they did last week for the holidays, the children go with her to Citigroup in Long Island City, N.Y., where she works in marketing. The company sets up a "camp" in a conference room and brings in a trained staff. "It's in the same building." Ms. Avgerinopoulus says. "We get to have lunch together. This is a definite advantage." She also enjoys the advantage of being able to work remotely some of the time. "If I am able to stay home three days a week, it makes a big difference."

Carlos Gonzalez, a financial analyst at Fannie Mae in Washington, D.C., is the father of a 7-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter. Their school offers an after-school program. His wife goes to work early at the Food and Drug Administration and picks up the children after school.

When their regular arrangements are not available, such as on snow days, he takes the children to work with him. Fannie Mae employees can use the child-care center for emergencies for 30 days per year.

"It's a great place, not only because it takes the stress off parents, but because the kids meet new friends." Mr. Gonzalez says. He would like the program expanded to more than 30 days.

Fannie Mae established emergency care, including after-school care, when it recognized that primary child care sometimes falls through, creating "a major productivity issue," says Emmanuel Bailey, chief diversity officer. "Anything that's a drainer to top talent, we want to address."

Helen Patrikis, a publicist in New York, has two sons, ages 17 and 15. Until last year, her parents, who live nearby, came to the house every afternoon to greet her sons when they arrived or to pick them up from sports practices. Now that her older son drives, this is no longer necessary.

"Obviously you worry," Ms. Patrikis says. "I can be sitting in a meeting with somebody in my office. I'll get an instant message or a phone call [from one of my sons]. You have to stop what you're doing. It does impact your work." She adds, "We're in constant communication. We're always talking on the phone: 'What are you doing? Where are you going?' "

While situations like hers highlight the need for an understanding boss and flexible work schedules, one day Celsi received the kind of call that underscores the need for after-school programs. She learned that several boys had pushed their way into the house and said to her children, "Give me something." They stole $150 from Celsi's bedroom and a CD player.

"I had to run home at 4 o'clock," she says. "The neighbors were all there, the police were there. It was extremely frightening." For several weeks after that, her parents monitored the house after school.

Not all parents are able to leave work in an emergency, as she did. "A lot of low-wage workers can't just walk away in the afternoon if their child is in trouble," Grant says. "They may not even be able to pick up the phone. Some don't have transportation."

A lack of after-school programs also raises concerns about childhood obesity. "They're home alone, and they're eating," Grant says. "They're not out running around. They're watching television, playing on the computer. They're not being active." She adds, "One of the ironies we have to face is, there's great support for after-school programs, [and] there are all these kids who need these services. After-school is not a partisan issue. It spans across the aisle. It goes from far right to far left."

In some cases, she notes, "Parents had eight fewer unscheduled absences a year when children were in after-school programs."

In the business world, says Sabattini, the Catalyst researcher, companies can lessen the high toll of decreased productivity after school by developing an "agile" workplace that thrives on flexibility and emphasizes results rather than rigid schedules.

Celsi offers a suggestion of her own. Asked what would make her after-school situation better, she says, "I wish I could have a [global positioning system] on each of my kids and look at that on my laptop. I'm totally serious."

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