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Junior Partners : Some Mothers Cope With Orange County's Growing Child-Care Problem by Bringing Babies to Office

January 28, 1989|DANA PARSONS | Times Staff Writer

When Morris (Dutch) Wertenberger learned within the space of a few weeks in late 1987 that two of his employees were pregnant, he didn't know whether to pop the cork or slit his wrist.

At the time, Kim Smith and Kathy Butterfield represented half of Wertenberger's work force at Slide Link Inc., a 35-millimeter slide graphics business in Irvine. Both women made it clear they wanted to spend at least the first few months at home with their newborn babies--the first child for each.

So after a couple of obligatory hip-hip-hoorays, Wertenberger disappeared into his office and began pounding the table with both fists.

Not really, but Wertenberger did have a problem on his hands: how to keep two employees he valued (Smith was his manager of operations), yet be accommodating to their personal wishes.

The solution proved to be remarkably simple: Since last September, when both infants were just several weeks old, Smith and Butterfield have been bringing their baby daughters to the office in Irvine.

For the women, it meant not having to forgo income during a maternity leave period or look for day care that can run up to $7,000 a year in Orange County for infant children. For Wertenberger, it meant not having to replace two employees.

Such win-win situations are not common in the increasingly worrisome world of child care. "We're far behind, we're really far behind," said Carol Hatch, executive director of the Orange County Commission on the Status of Women.

"The commission has been screaming about the need for day care since the late '70s," Hatch said. "Everybody's been saying, 'Well, it wasn't a political priority until last year.' Now, everybody is screaming about day care."

Hatch said a huge disparity remains between day-care availability and the child population in Orange County. Commission statistics show that there are 3,636 licensed spaces for 66,400 children under the age of 2, and 36,291 spaces for 137,000 children ages 3 to 5. For children 6 to 14, there is one spot for every 25 children, Hatch said. Even conceding the fact that not all children need day care, the numerical gap is significant, Hatch said.

Employers who want to help with the day-care problem often get frustrated, Hatch said. "I think the problem is so overwhelming that it really frightens them. What might be beneficial would be if we'd see more joint efforts--companies large and small, working with city and school officials."

At Slide Link, Wertenberger decided to try the "don't worry-be happy" approach. "At first, there was a slight hitch in the stomach, but then we thought, 'Why not? What can go wrong?' " Wertenberger said. "It's not like you're committing yourself to discovering the New World with three ships sailing west. If you don't like it the third day, you can call a halt to the whole thing."

That was 5 months ago and so far the experiment has worked, although Wertenberger says the company is "just winging it" with its makeshift day-care program.

Child-care officials applaud Wertenberger's initiative, while acknowledging that the idea would not lend itself to many work situations. But in a county woefully short of child-care services, any idea that works is cause for celebration.

"There are a lot of ways to help employees in child care, aside from using on-site child care," according to Ann Tanouye, the county's child care ombudsman for the state Department of Social Services. For example, she said, employers can reserve slots in existing child-care centers, subsidize their employees' child-care expenses or use a federal program that lets employees' deduct child-care expenses from their paychecks before being taxed.

While authorities said they are not aware of any other company that lets its employees bring children to work, they said it may be occurring with no fanfare. In addition, some other public agencies and private companies sponsor day-care facilities.

Among them:

Fairview Developmental Center claims the first employer-sponsored child-care center in Orange County, converting an old ward at the center into four classrooms that opened in 1983. It now has about 80 children, ranging from infants to preschoolers, and is available both to center employees and the general public.

The Internal Revenue Service in Laguna Niguel has a day-care center in the federal building, available both to children of IRS employees and the general public. Sixty-two children are enrolled.

Tracor Flight Systems Inc. in Santa Ana has five children in an on-site day-care center, which is available for employees' children up to 2 years old.

Three companies--Pacific Mutual Insurance, Hughes Aircraft and Pacifica Community Hospital--joined to sponsor a child-care center in Huntington Beach for their employees' children and the general public. The center now has 52 children but room for 100 more.

The city of Irvine has financed a day-care center now handling 100 children of city employees and the general public.

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