The workplace child-care challenge

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in HR Management,Human Resources

Have you ever had employees unable to work because of difficulties with their child care? If you're like most managers, the answer is "Of course." A recent study by the National Council of State Legislatures found that 90 percent of employers reported people being absent, tardy or having to leave unexpectedly because of care issues.

Of all the issues that face managers and enterprises wanting to become more family-friendly or enhance their employees' work-life balance, the availability of quality, affordable child care is a daunting one.

Employers, lawmakers and advocates for working families have spent a lot of time and energy trying to respond to the child-care challenge. Yet as of 2004, the latest year for which federal statistics are available, only 14 percent of U.S. workers in private industry had access to employer child-care benefits--whether on-site care, stipends for off-site care, or resource and referral assistance. Employees covered by such benefits are far more likely to be at the higher end of the workforce--white collar, making more than $15 an hour, and in firms with 100 or more employees.

That leaves out a lot of employees, including many for whom the need for affordable, accessible child care is greatest. For those employees--and their managers--flexible work "options" aren't always so optional. Indeed, child-care issues are what prompt many workers and managers to first embark on flexible scheduling or telecommuting efforts with their teams. Managers, of course, must be careful to ensure that these options are implemented fairly, so that employees without children, or with older children, aren't penalized by having to work more, or denied the chance to try flex-options for themselves.

Beyond that, some employers are looking at more proactive approaches. Operating an on-site child-care center is outside the realm of possibility for all but the largest workplaces, but collaborative arrangements with local providers are more and more common. These need not be formal contracts with your entire enterprise. If you lead a team with several working parents who face child-care challenges, think about what you can do on your own.

Spending some of your discretionary funds, combined with contributions from the parents involved, to hire a babysitter may be a better option than losing several people at crunch time. This approach has been formalized by big firms like Microsoft and Merrill Lynch, which offer backup child-care services--basically, nannies on call--when their employees run into conflicts. (While many firms reserve this benefit for top managers, Merrill Lynch--a highly regarded company on work-family issues--extends it to all employees.) The experts at WFD Consulting, which specializes in work-life issues, say that every dollar invested in such backup child care produces a $3 to $4 return for the employer.

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