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Employer-Sponsored Child Care Is Growing in Quantity and Quality

March 15, 1998|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS

It's official: There are more kids at the office these days.

Employer-sponsored child-care centers, considered a curiosity 15 years ago, have become downright common, cutting across industries and company size, according to a recent study by an El Segundo-based consulting firm. The centers are also improving in quality, but often charge above-market fees.

In 1982, only 204 child-care centers existed at corporate work sites. That number has since mushroomed to about 1,800, according to the study by Burud & Associates, a company that conducts research and advises companies on work/life benefits. When you add child-care centers at office buildings, hospitals and universities, the total jumps to more than 8,000.

"Work-site child-care centers seem to have gone from being an unusual 'phenomenon' to becoming much more a part of the common thread of the American workplace," the study says. "Their continued growth, despite the investment associated with them, suggests that employers now consider them a viable component of the new workplace culture, with a payoff not only to employees and their children, but also as a contributor to the achievement of fundamental strategic business goals."

In looking closely at 205 centers in 40 states, the researchers determined that an increasing number of small companies are opening child-care centers by forming joint ventures with other companies for near-site operations, said Sandy Burud, founder of Burud & Associates, which is now a division of Bright Horizons of Cambridge, Mass., operator of 140 work-site child-care centers.

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Health-care, high-tech and manufacturing companies have the highest number of work-site child-care centers, followed by insurance, retail, entertainment, telecommunications and pharmaceutical firms. Employers increasingly are contracting out the operation of these centers to professional management firms, the study found.

The survey shows that companies of any size can find a child-care option that will help employees and the bottom line, said Ellen Blizinsky, vice president of community development of Working Solutions Inc., a Seattle-based consulting firm that helped sponsor the research.

"It's been our experience that an on-site child-care center can be really important and a focal point in a work/life initiative that a company can take," Blizinsky said.

But many companies are finding success with other options, including near-site care and consortiums, she said. One events-planning company came up with an unusual solution to an unusual situation: Four of the company's seven employees were pregnant and planning to continue working after having their babies, so the company hired a nanny and installed her in adjacent office space.

"There needs to be flexibility, and there needs to be an examination of what would show the greatest support for employees so that they can perform to the maximum," Blizinsky said.

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Many of the companies examined by Burud say that operating child-care centers provides payoffs in the form of higher worker productivity, lower turnover, recruitment of desirable employees and general community goodwill.

The typical center cares for 105 children and is virtually full, the study said, noting that 82% have waiting lists. Most provide full-scale, early-childhood education as well as parent-education services.

"These centers are full to the brim, there's such demand," Burud said.

In addition to full-time child care, 46% offer back-up care when regular arrangements are unavailable, 36% provide vacation care for school-age children, 33% have before-school and after-school programs and 16% will care for children who are mildly ill.

Work-site centers generally are not self-supporting through parent fees but must receive some sort of corporate financial support to maintain quality and affordability. Even then, the centers are not cheap, charging substantial fees to parents.

New centers and high-quality centers are more likely to charge fees that are higher than those charged by other centers in the area.

The quality of the programs is reflected in the high percentage of work-site centers--41%--that are accredited by the National Assn. for the Education of Young Children. Only 5% of centers nationwide have achieved accreditation.

What's more, 86% of the accredited centers receive some sort of ongoing direct financial support. Work-site centers offer teachers substantially better benefit packages than those typically found in child care, which is an important part of retaining qualified teachers.

"It isn't a big mystery. Quality costs money, but it really pays off for the corporation because employees are happier and they're at work," Burud said.

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

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