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A Crying Need for Child-Care Job Benefits

April 07, 1985|JOHN F. LAWRENCE | John F. Lawrence is The Times' economic affairs editor

About 18 months ago, a young reporter returning from maternity leave deposited her offspring in the boss' office and proclaimed, "This is the company's new day-care center."

It was intended in jest, but not entirely so. For the company didn't--and still doesn't--have any child-care facilities, and the boss wound up taking reporter and baby to lunch that day. Some time later, the reporter quit, unwilling to spend the long hours separated from her toddler.

Considering the cost of losing highly prized professionals and other extensively trained and skilled employees, it isn't surprising that major employers are beginning to get into the child-care business. Several major Los Angeles employers, including Bank of America, Chevron and Mervyns, recently announced plans to supply $400,000 to six state-funded child-care resource and referral agencies. The agencies train child-care providers. Union Bank is taking a bigger step and planning an on-site care center at its new bank building in Monterey Park.

What is surprising is that so few companies have taken such steps. Strangely, major employers are finding it difficult to accept that they should respond to what is a massively changed work force and that it is in their self-interest to do so. It is as though they see the problem of working mothers as a temporary phenomenon or the women they have hired as short-term employees.

The problem may be that top corporate executives view the makeup of their company's payroll from an outdated point of view. Harvard Business School professor D. Quinn Mills points out that about 90% of the top officers are from the traditional family, where the husband is the sole breadwinner. Asked to estimate how many of their employees fall into that category, most guess it's still a majority, he says. The actual figure for the nation is about 13%. Nearly 65% are from multi-earner families. Moreover, 61% of the nation's women with children under 18 are now part of the work force.

The tragedy of the situation is that many of these careers, every bit as valuable to the employer as to the employed, are being interrupted unnecessarily. One Los Angeles executive bemoans the loss of two outstanding staff members who found prolonged separation from their children, particularly in the formative 1- to 3-year-old period, impossible to bear.

Many other new mothers, in an age of big mortgages and other expenses, don't have the luxury of choice. Committed to a two-income existence with their husband, they simply suffer the separation, face the uncertainty of getting adequate help at home or put up with the inconvenience of day-care facilities with their inflexible hours and remoteness from place of work.

Many employers have at least looked at the problem but have concluded that costs, questions of legal responsibility and other factors are too great an obstacle to creating a child-care program for employees. There's concern about creating units at one location and not another or having too little capacity at any major company facility to handle all the demand.

The question, however, is how many companies have even surveyed employees to measure the likely level of use.

Considering the effort many employers have put into breaking through the traditional male reluctance to hire and promote women, and the benefits they've seen as a result, it's difficult to understand why the cost factor seems so insurmountable. Moreover, it's logical to assume that users of such facilities, facing care costs anyway, would be willing to contribute something.

Union Bank, at Monterey Park, expects to charge tuition based on the child's age and the employee's salary. But it will subsidize the center and believes the costs will be offset fully by reduced employee turnover, absenteeism and tardiness, by shortened maternity leaves and by better morale.

The child-care issue is part of the broader problem of getting employers to take steps that will help new mothers return to work. Too many are inflexible on the question of work hours and schedules and length of maternity leaves. Policies too often appear designed to discourage return rather than to facilitate it.

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