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Work & Careers | BALANCING ACT / NANCY RIVERA BROOKS

Firms Commit Child-Care Funds as Study Shows Big Gaps in System

March 02, 1997|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS

Two recent dispatches from the child-care front put an interesting good news/bad news spin on the continuing struggle to be both a good worker and a good parent:

* A coalition of eight large employers unveiled a $1.7-million initiative to improve child care and elder care in the Bay Area.

* A children's advocacy group reported that in California, considered to be one of the best states for child care, serious gaps exist in the ability of working parents to find adequate and affordable care for their children.

The two announcements, made separately on Feb. 12, sum up the state of child care today: Much is being done but much more remains to be done, particularly as welfare reform sends low-income mothers into the work force without the promise of reliable child care.

The child-care study, issued by the nonprofit California Child Care Resource & Referral Network of San Francisco, surveyed 38,000 child-care providers and analyzed 45,000 requests for child care. What emerged was a startling picture of the shortcomings of a child-care system that is meeting only one-third of the need for subsidized care in California.

What's more, that need is expected to double in the next three years to about 560,000 children from 240,000 now, according to the organization, which also provides technical assistance and program management services to local child-care referral agencies funded by the state.

Welfare reform will put more low-income parents in the work force, many working nontraditional hours, but the study found that just 2% of California child-care centers operate at night or on weekends. Only 4% of the centers are licensed to care for children under 2.

Child care in California is also expensive, consuming as much as 90% of a minimum-wage parent's income.

Statewide, the average cost of care was $135 a week for a child under 2 and about $94 a week for a child between the ages of 2 and 5. Costs in Los Angeles averaged $127 a week for a child under 2 and $89 a week for a child between 2 and 5. San Francisco was the cost leader, with infant care averaging $180 a week.

Now for the better news: Employers representing more than 50,000 workers in the Bay Area unveiled their initial effort as part of a national coalition called American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care. That group, founded in 1992, has pledged more than $100 million for child-care programs in 66 cities. Initiatives in Los Angeles and Orange counties are still being planned.

In the Bay Area, $1.7 million is being committed during the next three years by AT&T, Bank of America, Chevron, Citibank, Deloitte & Touche, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Price Waterhouse.

The effort to strengthen dependent care, developed through extensive surveys of the companies' employees, involves only one new child-care center.

Instead, nearly one-third of the money will go to training existing child-care providers to better serve working parents. This will include such things as extending the hours that child care is offered and improving the availability of backup care and of care for mildly ill children.

Among the other projects are programs to prevent violence before and after school, to expand infant and toddler care, to create school-age summer camps and to conduct risk assessments of elders in their homes.

"This is not charity," said Diane Plowden, a human resources vice president at Bank of America. "We feel it will improve our bottom line because our employees will, we hope, have these problems resolved."

Bank of America recently conducted a survey about work/life issues among 13,000 Los Angeles area employees to determine what is needed in Southern California, she said.

Some recent child-care center developments in Southern California involve transportation. Construction will begin soon on a new center at Los Angeles International Airport to serve the children of employees at the airport. It is expected to open next January.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently opened a center at its downtown headquarters for employees' children. And in the last year, centers have opened at MetroLink commuter rail stations in Sylmar, Chatsworth and Montclair to help commuters and others with child care. The "Transit Tots" centers are operated by Children's Discovery Centers.

Has your company developed an interesting way to help employees balance work life and family life? Write to Balancing Act, Los Angeles Times, Business News, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Or send e-mail to nancy.rivera.brooks@latimes.com

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