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iThink Twice_i Business Can Make Child Care Work

November 27, 2001
Related Topics: Compensation Design and Communication, Work/Life Balance, Featured Article
There's nothing worse than hearing about an employer that wants to do something good, but ends up being told it's up to no good.

   This is happening to one California company. Even though it had only 75 employees, the firm opened a two-room child-care center in October 2000.

   Ten children spend about eight hours a day at the center. Their parents pay $150 a month, a fraction of the cost of most child care in California. For employees who don't have an alternative, private child care can run $1,000 per month.

   The kids range from a few weeks to three years old, and the company's child-care center is well staffed. Three people work in the center, and there is a minimum ratio of one caretaker to every four children at all times.

   The center has two rooms: one a nursery, the other for toddlers. The kids get fresh air each day when parents take them out for food or play during lunchtime. In fact, parents aren't even allowed to leave the building without taking their kids.

   According to the company's CEO, if it weren't for the child-care center, some employees would quit because they don't have alternatives. Only two employees have left the company voluntarily in the past year.

   Sound too good to be true? It is. The company found out a couple of months ago that the center is illegal. The state government could shut it down anytime. Under California law, an employer's child-care center has to have an outdoor playground with 75 square feet per child. This company, located in a business park, doesn't have room for a playground.

   California isn't alone in having such a rule. In Illinois, for example, the Department of Children and Family Services tells me, meeting the square-footage requirements (space per child) for acceptable playground space is one of the greatest challenges for an employer wanting to offer child care in their state.

   The problem with regulations, guidelines, and rules isn't that all of them are bad, or that they were made with bad intentions. It would certainly be nice for kids to have fresh air, playgrounds, and other amenities. (It would be nice for adults to have fresh air, too.)

   Generally speaking, however, the more government rules you have about anything, the more it costs businesses, and the harder it is for them to offer a benefit. And in the child-care arena, there are rules aplenty, from diapering guidelines to rules about posting menus to long explanations about the amount of light your child-care center must provide when children are playing.

   Small businesses know that each time you add regulations, no matter how seemingly innocuous, it costs money. Small businesses have to pay their lawyers to pore over these mandates. The result? Child care gets more expensive for employers, it becomes more complicated to implement, and businesses don't do it.

   The result isn't pretty. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in companies with fewer than 100 employees, only 4.5 percent of employees have access to child care or child-care assistance through their employers.

   "You set up too many restrictions and you price child care out of a lot of people's means," says Tom Shanahan of the department of health and welfare in Idaho, which governs child care in that state.

   "But Tom," you might say, "no amount of money is too much to spend to protect our children, is it?"

   That's a good line, because it makes it sound as if anyone who does not favor government regulation is heartless and does not care about toddlers. But we live in a free-market economy. In a free market, the government is not the best party to protect our children; conversely, government mandates can lull us into a false sense of security.

   Employers have to provide safe child care. If they don't, three things could happen.

   One, employees would vote with their wallets by refusing to pay to put their kids in the facility. The facility would close down, and it would have proved to be an enormous waste of an employer's time and energy.

   Two, employees could leave to go work for your competitor. Specifically, they'll go to a larger company with a more attractive set of work/life benefits.

   Even more likely than the first two options is the third: employees would sue the daylights out of you. Money, turnover, and the potential of a massive lawsuit are enough to put fear in the mind of any employer.

Workforce, December 2001, p. 88 -- Subscribe Now!

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