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Monday, May 13, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Work And Family

On-Site Child Care Is No Small Matter

Special To The Times

Nicholas Hertle, a chubby-cheeked, 6-month-old boy, grins with delight and eagerly flaps his arms when he discovers his dad, Mark, is visiting. Mark matches his son's grin with a mile-wide smile of his own.

Nicholas is enrolled at Hutch Kids, an employer-supported child-care center at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Mark, a program manager at the Hutch, visits his son each day. Mark could have sent his son to a center near his home but chose Hutch Kids instead because of its reputation and location.

As I walked through the brightly decorated rooms at Hutch Kids with director Nancy Myles and heard the sounds of happy, active children, I couldn't help thinking of all the children who do not have access to such care.

There is a dismal lack of affordable and quality care in our country, and corporate child-care centers are one of the many solutions needed to address this crisis.

For working parents, the benefits of on-site care are many. Parents gain peace of mind knowing their children are in a nearby, quality program. Because of corporate support, these centers often can pay better-than-average wages and provide state-of-the-art facilities. The steady flow of parents coming to visit creates an easy-going, flexible atmosphere and a natural monitoring process.

Increasingly, businesses recognize they also have something to gain by providing child care on-site or nearby. For starters, employees who know their young children are well-cared for can better focus on their work.

Corporate child-care centers also reduce absenteeism and help companies retain good workers.

Sandra Burud, president of a national child-care-benefits consulting firm, did a study at Los Angeles-based Union Bank before and after it opened its day-care facility. Burud's study found that users of the center were absent 1.7 days less than the control group. Turnover among center users was 2.2 percent, compared with 9.5 percent in the control group and 18 percent throughout the bank. Burud concluded that the day-care center saves the bank at least $138,000 to $232,000 a year.

Closer to home, Seattle's Virginia Mason Medical Center didn't have any voluntary turnover among employees using its on-site child-care center between 1985 and 1990. This compared with a 22 percent turnover rate in the rest of the hospital.

Corporate day-care centers benefit business in other important ways. They humanize the workplace. I've heard numerous stories from employees without children, or those who have already raised a family, about how they appreciate seeing and hearing children in the work environment.

On-site day care can break down hierarchies in the workplace and help employees solve work problems more creatively. When parents visit their children at the center, they come as parents, not as the vice president of this department or the administrative assistant of that department. The work hierarchy doesn't matter anymore. After all, it's hard to keep up a superior pretense when you're vainly trying to deal with your child having a tantrum over some small incident. These experiences are humbling moments that connect us to other parents.

Mark sees another benefit. He recently attended a management seminar at the Hutch. A portion of the seminar was on the importance of building relationships with colleagues in other departments. In his interactions with parents at Hutch Kids, Mark casually and regularly hears about what's going on in departments throughout the organization.

Burud sees several reasons for the growing interest in on-site centers. More and more companies recognize that you can't do business effectively if your employees don't have adequate child care, she says.

"Employees are either absent or when on the job they can't work at their peak," says Burud.

And there is an increasing amount of competitive pressure. Companies are more concerned about how their family-friendly benefits stack up against the competition.

Finally, the number of professional child-care-provider companies has grown considerably. Companies now have more choices than ever about who will run their centers.

Although there is no current count on the total number of employer-supported child-care centers in Washington state, a number of large Puget Sound-area employers have put in day-care centers in the past year, including the University of Washington, Icos, the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Scheduled to open in the near future are centers at Boeing's Everett site, Metro/King County and Harborview Medical Center.

Smaller employers may be discouraged about what they can do. On-site child-care centers do require a capital investment that may not be possible for some employers. But Larry Macmillan, employer liaison with Child Care Advantages in Olympia, sees a trend toward two other types of corporate child-care support that companies of varying sizes could explore.

One is for several companies to get together and create a center. For example, Shinetsu-SEH America, a silicon-chip manufacturer in Vancouver, Wash., joined with Educational Service District 112 and the Southwest Washington Child Care Consortium to open a center in a school for corporate families as well as others in the community.

Another way companies can get involved is to provide financial support to several child-care providers in the communities from which their employees commute, thereby strengthening the quality of service without a capital investment.

(Copyright, 1996, Susan Canfield. All rights reserved.)

Susan Canfield is a Seattle-based writer and consultant on work and family issues. The Work and Family column runs on the second Monday of the month in the Business section of The Times. Readers are encouraged to call or write with their comments or questions. Phone: 464-2377. Address: Susan Canfield, c/o Business News, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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